Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh is in Tunisia today as part of a four day visit to the country. Haniyeh arrived from Turkey, where he met with Prime Minister Erdogan. Haniyeh has also visited Egypt and Sudan, and intends to visit Qatar and Bahrain in the coming days.
Given that these visits are Haniyeh's first trip outside the Gaza Strip since 2007, their impact is unclear. However, given the increased prominence of Islamist movements in Egypt and Tunisia, the United States and Israel should keep a close eye on the outcomes of these visits, which likely have three objectives:
1) Haniyeh's visits are largely intended to raise Hamas' legitimacy and create new relationships with other Islamist movements in the region. It is also intended to legitimize Hamas in the eyes of the Palestinian people. The Palestinian Authority and the Fatah party must be careful about engaging with post-revolutionary states given their dependence on Israel and the United States for influence. In contrast, Haniyeh is openly engaging not only with several major players in the Arab world, but with Islamist leaders like Mohammed Badie in Egypt and Rached Ghannouchi in Tunisia as well.
2) Haniyeh's visits are intended to create a pro-Palestinian coalition in the Arab world by putting the Palestinian issue on the agenda of the Arab Spring. This move speaks to the broader trend of an internationalized Palestinian issue. Alongside political maneuvers at the UN, diplomatic visits abroad contribute to a (successful) policy of pressuring Israel via international proxies.
3) Haniyeh's visits are intended to raise the political salience of Hamas. They are a concrete example of non-violent steps Hamas is taking in order to increase its influence. By engaging with other Islamist political parties, Haniyeh is trying to associate Hamas with these movements which wield considerable political influence in their respective countries.
While today's defense strategic guidance document mentions the Arab Spring and supports Israel's security, it says little about engagement with political parties in the region. It will be important for the Obama administration to have clear strategies to achieve US objectives and support US allies in the region. The terms of engagement with Islamist groups will be one of the most important of these strategies.