Khaled Meshaal meeting with the head of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood over the weekend.(Mohammed al-Hams/Khaled Meshaal’s Office of Media via Getty Images)
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Is Meshaal Stepping Down to Step Up?

Hamas leader has broader ambitions

Marc Tracy
January 26, 2012
Khaled Meshaal meeting with the head of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood over the weekend.(Mohammed al-Hams/Khaled Meshaal's Office of Media via Getty Images)

Hamas is in flux. In the Palestinian territories, it is looking to reconcile with Fatah and create a unity government, even while holding on to power in Gaza. In Egypt, its sympathetic cousins the Muslim Brotherhood control the new parliament. In Jordan, its elements have an opportunity to gain ground if they can avoid getting smacked down by a panicked King Abdullah II. And most of all, in Syria, long the group’s base, it is a group non grata that is leaving: Its refusal to pay obeisance to President Assad during the dictator’s months-long, violent repression of internal dissent has earned it street cred in much of the region but ill will in Damascus. So, it was interesting over the weekend when the group announced that its longtime political leader Khaled Meshaal will resign. Combine it with news that Meshaal is otherwise raising his regional profile—he hopes to make an unprecedented visit to Gaza via Egypt with Palestinian President Abbas, in a huge symbolic sign of reconciliation; he plans to travel to Jordan, where he has residency papers (owing to his being born in the pre-1967 West Bank), and where Abdullah is officially welcoming him in a sign that the wind is at Islamists’ back.

It seems like Meshaal is backing away from the Hamas leadership less out of exhaustion than out of ambition. Nathan Thrall, a Tablet Magazine contributing editor who is a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, answered my questions by email earlier this week.

How credible are these reports?
Highly credible, as the announcements have come from Hamas itself. One doesn’t really “run” for election as politburo head; there are no campaigns. The leader of the politburo is elected by Hamas’ senior decision-making body, the Shura Council, which is itself comprised of elected Hamas leaders. Although there remains a significant possibility that he will be chosen by the Shura Council despite announcing his intention to step down, the announcement doesn’t seem to be a ploy by Meshaal to be begged to lead for another four years.

How voluntary is his retirement?
Hamas’ internal elections are quite secret, so the deeper we get into the mechanics of them the less reliable the information we’re discussing. That said, it appears that Meshaal’s decision was not entirely voluntary.

His ambitions seem larger than to be the leader of Hamas. He speaks more and more as a leader of all Palestinians. Some suspected that he was pushing much harder than his colleagues for reconciliation with Fatah because the end-game for him was Hamas joining the Palestine Liberation Organization and his eventually becoming that organization’s chairman, which is to say, leader of the Palestinian people. These suspicions caused his behavior to come under extra scrutiny, as happened when the May 2011 signing ceremony for the Hamas-Fatah reconciliation agreement was nearly derailed by a dispute over whether Meshaal would be given a seat at the podium beside Abbas. Some in Gaza saw the highly conciliatory speech he delivered in Cairo that day as pushing the boundaries of Hamas’ internal consensus. After meetings with Abbas in Cairo in November and December 2011, Meshaal stressed that Fatah and Hamas had agreed to a joint program of popular resistance, which many—especially Fatah spokesmen and leaders—interpreted to mean that Hamas was committing to a program of nonviolence. Though Hamas leaders on the outside, including Meshaal himself, were quick to clarify that they had not abandoned their right to armed resistance, they didn’t do so as loudly, clearly, or forcefully as they could have, and some in Gaza were unhappy with the resultant misperception that Hamas had radically changed its positions.

At the end of the day, Hamas is a popular movement, based in the West Bank and Gaza, with roots in local schools, mosques, welfare organizations, charities, and, since municipal and legislative elections in 2005 and 2006, government institutions. It is the inside leadership that must be more attentive to the base of Hamas supporters. The outside leadership gets a lot of publicity, but it is the inside leadership that has borne the heaviest burdens of the movement, from arrest to torture at the hands of the Palestinian Authority to the death of family members through assassination attempts by Israel. As one member of the inside leadership told me, “Hamas is not an office in Damascus.”

In discussing Meshaal’s decision, I would caution against using the word “retirement.” He is highly respected, experienced in diplomacy, charismatic, well-connected, and powerful within the movement. It seems likely he will continue to play a prominent role, whatever his official title.

It seems Meshaal’s decision would be connected to Hamas’ abandoning of Damascus in the midst of the Syrian civil war. Is Hamas’ next leader going to be more or less committed to staying in Damascus? If they leave, do they go to Cairo? Doha? Amman?
With the exception of a small group among the outside leadership, Hamas has all but left Damascus already. If Hamas’ outside leadership had been offered an alternative home in a state bordering the West Bank or Gaza—an alternative home in which they were permitted to conduct the business of the movement unobstructed—it’s quite likely they would have relocated by now. That said, unlike Hezbollah, Hamas has managed to avoid supporting the Syrian regime while continuing to express its gratitude for the years of support Assad had offered. Having avoided the mistakes of Hezbollah and other groups, Hamas may be able to stay in Damascus should Assad be replaced.

There is talk that Hamas, much like its cousins the Muslim Brotherhood, is genuinely reforming. Do you buy it? How does the Meshaal news affect your calculation? Does this make reconciliation with Fatah more or less likely?
There’s no doubt that Hamas has undergone significant changes in the last several years. In 2006, they participated in elections for a body many of its members deemed illegitimate because it was the product of the Oslo Accords. In 2007, they agreed with Fatah to form a national unity government that would respect the past agreements signed by the PLO, which include, of course, the recognition of Israel. The platform of that unity government affirmed the PLO chairman’s right to negotiate a final agreement with Israel and to bring such an agreement back to a referendum whose outcome Hamas has said it would respect. In Gaza, Hamas is arresting and prosecuting rocket launchers, albeit less completely than Israel would like. In Cairo in May 2011, Meshaal said that Abbas could take a year to continue pursuing negotiations with Israel. Today Hamas sits in a committee affiliated with the PLO while that organization negotiates with Israel. Hamas speaks loudly, albeit not exclusively, of a state on 1967 borders, though it should be noted that the difference here is one of emphasis, as Hamas has repeated this position many times since it was first uttered in the 1990s by Sheikh Yassin. And in fall 2011, Meshaal stressed his commitment to engage with Fatah on a joint strategy of so-called popular resistance.

These developments notwithstanding, Hamas leaders also say that though they are willing to engage for a defined period in popular resistance with Fatah, and though they are willing to embrace the creation of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders, and though they were willing to form a government whose platform respected the past agreements of the PLO, including its recognition of Israel, they still retain, as members of a people under military occupation, a right to armed resistance; they still hold a long-term goal of liberating not just the territory Israel occupied in 1967 but also the remaining 78 percent of historic Palestine; and they still refuse to recognize the legitimacy of Israel. It should be noted that Fatah too insists on its right to armed resistance.

By all accounts, Hamas makes its decisions collectively, so even if Meshaal had been pushing harder for reconciliation, he cannot make decisions of enormous consequence to the movement without the consent of the Shura council. His successor will be similarly constrained. If the successor is Musa Abu Marzouk, I don’t expect to see changes with respect to reconciliation; Abu Marzouk had been the primary negotiator for Hamas for quite some time. If the successor is from the Gaza leadership, I imagine reconciliation could become more difficult.

Who is his likely successor?
The two names most frequently discussed are Ismail Haniyeh, the Gaza-based Palestinian prime minister, and Marzouk, the deputy head of the politburo, who was an early follower of Hamas’ founder, Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, created the politburo, and headed it from its inception until his arrest in the United States in 1995. The former is a skilled orator and fair mediator, is popular among female voters, and would be Hamas’ most viable candidate in a presidential election. The latter hails from Rafah [in Gaza], is respected by the Gaza leadership, and has a reputation for being one of Hamas’ leading strategists.

(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.