07 December 2012

Khaled Meshaal: The Prodigal Son Returns

If you belong to my tiny but loyal and erudite readership, you will remember that, back in February, I posted a piece entitled "What is Happening with Hamas" to highlight the serious rift that emerged between Ismail Haniyeh, the Prime Minister in Gaza and Khaled Meshaal, the political leader of Hamas in exile.

In that post, I quoted Meshaal making rather conciliatory statements about Israel and the two-state solution. He even insinuated that he would take part in a national unity government led by Abbas.
Israeli analyst Matti Steinberg of Haifa University says Meshaal "quite clearly wants to advance reconciliation with Fatah" and to speak about a Palestinian state within the lines created by the 1967 Middle East war, rather than recovering the Palestine that existed before Israel's creation in 1948. 
He is also ready to suspend the military jihad against Israel and go along with Abbas's idea of "popular resistance" through non-violent mass protests, Steinberg said. Hamas hardliners insist on the right to "armed resistance." 
Analysts speculate that Meshaal's goal may be to end the isolation of his movement and make it an essential partner in Middle East negotiations, one that Israel and the West can no longer afford to ostracize as a terrorist group.
Haniyeh, on the other hand, was firmly against these possibilities.

I concluded that,
Meshaal's recent moves, i.e. announcing his departure, leaving Syria and getting close to Jordan and Qatar make sense if he is getting ready to participate in a peace agreement with Israel. 
That means that Meshaal is anticipating that such a deal is more or less imminent. This is a radical U-turn for an organization that wants to eradicate any trace of Israel from the region using armed struggle. Suddenly, they are talking about 1967 borders and peaceful popular resistance. 
It also means that he realizes that Syria is no longer able to provide cover for Hamas, as it is about to experience a radical regime change and maybe a prolonged civil war. 
It further means that Meshaal does no longer value Hamas' alliance with Iran and is trying to find new sponsors and protectors in the region. That indicates that he believes Iran's ascendancy peaked and regardless of the outcome of its confrontation with the US, Iran will have to accept a secondary power position behind others like Turkey.

Since then, Meshaal, who had earlier announced his retirement, has been quietly positioning himself as the true leader of all Palestinians. To that effect, he has been forging a series of new regional alliances.  He moved his offices out of Syria and settled in Qatar and Jordan. He has been working closely with with the Egyptian President and the Turkish Prime Minister as well as King Abdullah of Jordan and the Emir of Qatar.

His alliance with Morsi is perhaps understandable as Hamas was an offshoot of Muslim Brotherhood. But his alignment with Erdogan is intriguing. After my post, they met in March to discuss how Hamas and Fatah could form a unity government. In October, Meshaal was a guest of honor for the AKP party congress and he gave a speech, stating that Erdogan was not just the leader of Turkey, he was the leader of the Muslim world.

If you were familiar with my working hypothesis that a dual settlement involving Palestinians and Kurds and the ensuing regional stability has been the primary moving force behind the process we call the Arab Spring and that Turkey was the regional power tasked with facilitating this process, you might realize the importance I attach to Meshaal's moves.

Meshaal the Omniscient Leader: Media Narrative

During the recent face-off with Israel, Meshaal eclipsed Haniyeh completely in the media narrative. For a man who has never set foot in Gaza in 45 years, he was presented as the omnipresent and omniscient leader who brought the Hamas resistance to a successful end. He was the diplomat who negotiated the truce deal in Egypt. He was the brilliant tactician behind Hamas' strategy. And he was hailed as the man who stood up to Israel and stared down Netanyahu.
Khaled Meshaal narrowly survived an assassination attempt ordered by Benjamin Netanyahu in 1997 the first time he was Israeli prime minister. Fifteen years on, the Hamas leader claims to have defeated Netanyahu once again.  (...) 
This week, his political stock climbed sharply as he led the Palestinian team negotiating a ceasefire under Egyptian mediation. The deal unveiled on Wednesday was viewed as a success by the Palestinians.
His reach was not limited to Gaza: BBC reported that Meshaal successfully sidelined Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
As Hamas now celebrates what it sees as the victory of its militants over Israel and promises to ease movement restrictions in the Palestinian territory, Mr Abbas risks losing credibility.
"This war proved the weakness of Mahmoud Abbas. He wasn't involved in anything that happened," says Abdulmajid Darawish.
"The one making decisions was [the head of Hamas], Khaled Meshaal. This was the second war in Gaza in which the Palestinian Authority and Fatah weren't involved." 
Notice how Ismail Haniyeh is conspicuous by his absence in all this. Haniyeh, the Prime Minister of Gaza. It was as if everyone was trying to give Meshaal credit for everything and anything and ignore Haniyeh.

Today Meshaal is set to visit Gaza for the first time in 45 years. He has entered Gaza from the Rafah border crossing and he is scheduled to address a huge rally on Saturday. He is widely expected to announce that the time is right for a unity government.
Although attempts to forge a Palestinian government of national unity have since stalled, Mr Meshaal told Reuters ahead of his Gaza visit that "there is a new mood that allows us to achieve reconciliation" 
Mr Meshaal was quick to praise Mr Abbas's recent success in upgrading Palestinian status at the United Nations to that of a non-member "observer state".
Interestingly, Israeli government chose to ignore Meshaal's visit to Gaza. Maybe it was because Lieberman ousted his deputy minister Danny Ayalon the day before (you might remember Ayalon from the Kabuki theater with the Turkish ambassador). But all the Ministry spokesperson could muster was that Israel had no say over who entered Gaza from Egypt.

A week prior to Meshaal's visit a Turkish newspaper and a couple of Palestinian media outlets reported that Erdogan was planning to make a surprise visit to coincide with Meshaal's rally on Saturday. I am not sure if he will do that. He made similar announcements before, only to cancel them at the last minute.

The important point to me is how Meshaal was transformed from a prickly aging radical ready to retire to a formidable politician who eclipsed and surpassed both Haniyeh and Abbas in ten short months. It seems to me that he was seriously helped along the way.  He was encouraged to form a series of regional alliances (and disavow Iran and Syria in the same process). His media narrative was uniformly positive and carefully structured. Qatar and Saudi Arabia provided him with funds and future pledges and Turkey turned him into its main interlocutor in the Kabuki theater it has been playing with Israel. In fact, even Israel played a role by refusing to criticize him personally, focusing instead on Hamas, Haniyeh and Iran.

In the end, he emerged as the leader of all Palestinians ready to represent them in a peace deal. For Palestinians he is much tougher than Abbas, for the forces that want this peace and stability he is a lot more reasonable than Haniyeh.

Needless to add, given my February speculations and my working hypothesis all of this makes a lot of sense to me.  After all, I have been claiming that a peace process was in the making.

But the real confirmation will come if after the January 22 elections in Israel a peace process is announced.

If that happens, I will be a very proud contrarian. An unread and ignored contrarian but a very proud one nonetheless.

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