Leader waits in shifting sands of Middle East
Paul McGeough, The Age, March 2, 2013
First comes one projectile, then another. Both are in full flight, moving quickly.
Launched by Khalid Mishal in the early hours of the morning, they could be rockets over Gaza. But he is in Doha, deftly quartering apples and guavas, then hurling pieces the length of the room, to a colleague at the other end of a long, leather-inlaid conference table.
The supreme leader of Hamas is in a joking, playful mood. But it would be dangerous to underestimate the many facets of this man’s persona. The implicit—and explicit—violence in his Palestinian resistance movement’s refusal to recognise Israel or to renounce armed resistance to the occupation of their territory, often sees Mishal cast as stubborn, insisting that all others must change, that the world must come into line with his thinking.
In Israel and in many Western capitals he is reviled as a terrorist; in much of the Arab and Muslim worlds he is hailed as a freedom fighter. But for some years, Mishal has been inching away from his movement’s “absolutes”. These days, amid chaos and convulsions across the Middle East, Mishal finds himself on the cusp of such a radical repositioning that he dares not speak of it.
The Arab Spring is a dramatic turn for the Hamas leader. First, as an opening through which he can become a leader for all Palestinians; and second, as an extraordinary diplomatic realignment in the region that has him believing his movement is riding the crest of a geopolitical wave that can deliver freedom. Maybe.
Much depends on Mishal’s daring as a diplomatic gambler and on his capacity to keep Hamas united as he seeks to emulate a fabled resistance fighter who went before him—but only up to a point. The late Yasser Arafat indeed became a pan-Palestinian leader, but in renouncing violence and recognising Israel, he signed on for a peace process that 20 years later, has not delivered.
In that, history acknowledges Arafat as the father of Palestinian nationalism. Mishal, however, wants to be recorded as the leader who delivered the nation for his people.
In these uncertain times, Palestinians might look out across the region, wondering if their day has come. For some, the first week of December might have heralded such a turn in events.
For the first time since the 1970s, Mishal was back on Palestinian soil—at a thunderous rally in Gaza, to mark the end of another war in which Israel had failed to crush Hamas, and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his movement.
"From the river to the sea," he declared, stepping out of a replica of the Hamas-designed M-75 rocket. "Today we meet in Gaza—tomorrow we’ll meet in Ramallah, Hebron, Nablus and Jerusalem."
Gazing towards a new horizon, an optimistic Palestinian might be infused with a warm inner glow on reading how Mishal tells the Herald: “Now, we want to pursue our objectives and ambitions in a more dignified manner—not as if we are begging for our rights. Others have to respect what we’re working for [because] peace is made only by the strong, not the weak.”
But those casting an eye over the daily regurgitation of the news media, English language and Arabic, might conclude: “Same ol, same ol.”
Despite the tectonic shifts of the Arab Spring and the tumult of regime collapses, Palestinian lands remain occupied and, bizarrely, some of their Palestinian leaders and many officials in the West seem resigned to their fate in managing the occupation for Israel.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, tells The New York Times: “Israel has gotten the international community to pay the bill—it has a cushy occupation.”
The Palestinians’ supposed new best friend, the Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Mursi in Egypt, reportedly is flooding the smugglers’ tunnels that are an economic lifeline for Gaza—and that’s the Cairo semaphore, signalling to Washington that when it comes to Israel and security, the new Cairo is not likely to deviate far from the policies of the ousted Mubarak regime.
Similarly, officials of the Brotherhood in Egypt have gone on the record telling foreign reporters that Mohammed Badie, the movement’s supreme guide or chairman, had personally instructed Mishal to be “more flexible”.
And for all the Arab hope vested in the Arab Spring, hardline Israelis become more hardline. As the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, seeks a new footing after being banged around by voters at elections, his former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman argues that a permanent peace with the Palestinians is even more impossible because of the Arab Spring.
In Washington, Barack Obama throws up his hands too.
Even the warring Palestinian factions can’t get their act together. Yet somewhere between these sliding doors, the resistance leader who has never actually been a resistance fighter has had a moment of truth. The man who claims Hamas as his own personal creation, while working as a young physics teacher in Kuwait in the early 1980s, wants to bring Hamas in from the cold.
In this Mishal is being willed to the edge, being dared to leap to determine if he can fly. Key figures in two of the more vital capitals of the Arab Spring—Cairo and Doha—seemingly have assured him of a soft, even dignified landing. And if this is the case, it is implausible that they would venture so far out on a limb and that Mishal would join them there, without some kind of back-channel approval from Washington.
The Hamas leader doesn’t like the term, but in coming to that edge, Mishal has been burning bridges.
Incredibly, Hamas has quit Damascus. The Syrian capital became the movement’s headquarters in exile after Jordan’s naive new king, Abdullah II, cast out the Hamas gang in 1999. As an Islamist organisation rooted in the then sinister sounding Muslim Brotherhood, the movement was alert to the possibility that Damascus could turn on it—the Assad regime had done so brutally in 1982, virtually flattening the city of Hama to choke a Brotherhood uprising.
But Hamas had nowhere else to go. And locked in its own conflict with Israel, the ruling Assad family saw strategic good sense in giving shelter to what were called the “rejectionist” Palestinian factions—those who refused to buy into the Washington-backed peace process.
This Assad-Hamas relationship was a pact between a minority, Shiite-aligned dictatorship and a Sunni resistance movement. It endured despite the re-emergence of the Sunni-Shiite schism in the Muslim world, but it could not survive the Arab Spring, which has embroiled Syria in sectarian chaos, with an estimated 70,000 civilians dying as the state turned its guns on its own people.
As the Hamas leader tells it, even before the first protests erupted in Syria in March 2011, he had urged the mercurial Bashar al-Assad to opt for reforms that might head off any revolt against his rule by his own people. “I alerted him to the likelihood of the Arab Spring coming to Syria,” Mishal says, adding by way of a rebuke to the translator: “I did not warn him.”
Hamas hung in for another 10 months. But that encounter in which Mishal urged Assad to act pre-emptively was their last. Over the years, they had met regularly, enjoying each other’s company—Assad and Mishal.
"There were no more meetings," Mishal says. "It was clear that we differed in our opinions on what would happen. We wished they would meet the aspirations of their people—regrettably, the Syrian leadership took the other option.
"That made it impossible for us to maintain a presence there—with such brutality and bloodshed. And once we felt our presence was being sought after as a justification for what was happening, we had to leave. [Syrian officials] were demanding that we openly support their policy—they wanted to know why we did not [publicly] express solidarity.
"We were left with no choice."
This was bigger than merely offending an embattled dictator in Damascus, because other powerful parties would take deep offence at Hamas abandoning Assad. Guardedly, Mishal lifts the veil, ever so slightly: “Our assessment of Syria was a source of disagreement with a number of people.”
Hamas’ abandonment of Syria “soured” the movement’s relations with Tehran, he confirms. There were “areas of agreement and disagreement” with Moscow and “it had an impact on our relations with [the Lebanese Shiite militia] Hezbollah, because our stand on Syria was different to theirs.”
In a tit-for-tat response, particularly after reports that Tehran had punished Hamas by chopping a funding deal worth an estimated $25 million a month, a movement spokesman in Gaza told reporters Hamas would not do the bidding of the Iranians in any military conflict between Iran and Israel—“if there’s a war between two powers, Hamas will not be part of such a war”.
During more than six hours of interviews in Doha, Mishal sets out the departure from Syria only in terms of needing to be on the right side of history—“we had to stand with the people, to support their calls for freedom and economic reform … we would never support bloodshed and brutality when the people rise peacefully to demand change”.
In this, Mishal vehemently rejects a line of analysis in the region that, as the most aggressive of the Palestinian factions, Hamas was voting with its feet—not simply to leave Damascus, after more than a decade of using the Syrian capital as a regional resistance platform, but seemingly to abandon its historic stance of hardline resistance, by putting itself at the mercy of others in the region, players who are bent on negotiating a settlement to the Palestinian conflict—and who certainly are not expected even to contemplate going to war to end the Israeli occupation.
The same critique argues that in making the call to quit Damascus amid so much tumult and change in the region, Hamas had acted too early. In short, this argument goes, Mishal has committed the same mistake as his historic rival, Yasser Arafat.
As the leader of the secular Fatah faction which today controls the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, the late Arafat blundered by aligning himself with Saddam Hussein after the Iraqi dictator’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.
Infuriated, the Gulf monarchs of the day retaliated by axing years of generous funding for the Palestinians. Confronting bankruptcy, Arafat had no choice but to join what became an interminable and fruitless negotiation that evolved to become today’s so-called peace process.
Has Mishal emulated Arafat’s wrong-footed leap to Saddam with his embrace of the Qatari royals and of the unsteady, new Muslim Brotherhood government of Mohammed Mursi in Egypt?
Mishal: “Some people think that Hamas has shifted from one camp to another. This is wrong—we have not moved from one axis to another. Before the Arab Spring, Hamas had relations with countries that were in the resistance camp, as well as with countries in the moderate camp.
"We maintain the same relations. Undoubtedly events influence our relations—negatively and positively. But we seek to maintain balance and diversity; to avoid being counted as a member of this or that alliance. Hamas does not subordinate to anyone—not in the past, not now and not in the future."
Mishal glosses over a dramatic realignment of religious, secular and national forces in the region—in which he sits at the epicentre.
Hello Egypt and Qatar; bye-bye Syria, Iran and Hezbollah. Welcome, Hamas, to the region’s new American club—which in many ways is the old American club.
Without doubt, the Arab Spring should be a historic game-changer for Palestinians generally and, given the regional ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist movements, for Hamas in particular.
The question then is, how does a movement steeped in resistance capitalise on such regional upheaval, when the neighbours are supportive but none is overly inclined to rock the regional boat?
A proponent of the “just like Arafat” theory explained: “If Mishal’s intention is to stay with Hamas, then he jumped too soon from Syria. But if he’s looking to lead all Palestinians and to negotiate peace, Israel will not talk to him as Hamas.
"What are his priorities? Does he want to be the head of a [designated] terrorist group or does he want to be a statesman? He can’t be both." Mishal has announced he is quitting as supreme leader of Hamas—his replacement could be confirmed by a vote of the Hamas shura, or top council, any day. But the Herald was assured too that Mishal aspires to a bigger brief, as leader for all Palestinians.
By coincidence, the 74-year-old Mahmoud Abbas says he will not seek re-election as president of the Palestinian Authority—though it’s not clear if he also intends to relinquish his posts as head of Fatah and of the PLO.
There is speculation—read that as hope—in some Palestinian circles and in Israel and Washington that Abbas, jaded as he is, might not follow through on quitting the PA.
Unlike Mishal, Abbas is seen as a moderate, a staunch advocate of non-violent negotiation with Israel who only recently has revealed himself capable of independent or determined action—such as his bid for Palestinian membership of the United Nations and his faction’s in-principle agreement to join Hamas in a new unity government.
Historically, Hamas has spurned the PLO because of the latter’s renunciation of armed struggle and its recognition of the state of Israel.
PLO membership for Hamas would serve as a launch pad for Mishal to seek to head the PLO. Given the enmity between the factions, it comes as no surprise that the latest round of unity negotiations, in Cairo in mid-February, is deadlocked on the issue of election rules. If Hamas folds itself into the PLO and Mishal makes a bid for the top seat, how does the movement stick to its refusal to abide by previous deals between the PLO and the international community?
Some Arab-language reports speculate that Qatar and others have hit on installing Mishal as leader of the PLO precisely because such an appointment would back him in behind those deals.
When pressed on his leadership ambitions, Mishal is circumspect, except to say: “God knows best. [But] I’m ready to play any role that will serve my people.”
Mishal talks about Qatar in glowing terms—the emir’s vision and daring; the kingdom’s vast wealth; and the use of the al-Jazeera satellite news service as a tool of foreign and regional policy. He also identified the gas-rich emirate’s ability to take advantage of the other Arab leaders’ preoccupation with domestic affairs—“Undoubtedly, the prominence of the Qatari role becomes more evident by the absence of the roles previously played by other Arab leaders.”
With its strong relationships with the US and Europe and even low-key links with Israel, Doha seemingly is positioning itself as an emissary and advocate for the emerging governments with Brotherhood or Islamist elements.
The opportunity in this for Hamas, which for many in the West is a regional pariah, is that Doha can convince foreign capitals to deal with the Brotherhood on a one-in, all-in basis. That then, could be Hamas’s ticket to the big end of town.
Mishal has steadily steered his movement towards an acceptable middle ground—Hamas’s embrace of a two-state solution is qualified, but it implicitly recognises Israel and it shrinks the movement’s “river to the sea” territorial claims to the West Bank and Gaza. Despite rejecting the Oslo Accords, Hamas contested and fairly won the elections demanded by the international community; the movement has backed away from suicide bombing as a weapon of choice as its discourse shifts from jihad to hudna [truce]; and its target has become the Israeli occupation—not Judaism.
This then is Mishal’s great gamble—the Arab Spring has created a new regional dynamic in which neighbouring countries might persuade the US and Europe that Hamas is the solution, not the problem. If Hezbollah can operate in Europe and if Washington can reach out to the Taliban then Mishal should have a seat at the table.
Mishal is betting the house on diplomacy and negotiation; not resistance and jihad. It then becomes a question of who’ll blink first—Washington? Hmmm. One of the European capitals? Maybe. The Israelis? Hardly.
For Mishal, the critical calculation is to judge for how long the diplomatic window created by the Arab Spring—if there is one—can be held open, before all the renewed regional enthusiasm for the Palestinian cause wears off, and the neighbours revert to the old “there’s-nothing-we-can-do” status quo as a new “normal”.
In the past, Mishal and his Hamas colleagues lectured this reporter on the movement’s patience, adapting as their own, the oft-quoted Taliban fighter’s rebuke to a US general in Afghanistan—“the trouble is you Americans have watches—we have time”.
But asked during the Doha interviews, if the Palestinian crisis might remain in its historic rut, festering for decades more to come, the leader of Hamas shakes his head vehemently.
"Resolution will be fast," he declares. "Today I feel that we are closer than at any time before to accomplishing our national project, to regaining our national rights. We, the Palestinians, continue to have determination and willpower, but the new circumstance is the Arab Spring."
Paul McGeough is the author of Kill Khalid [2009, various publishers], on the rise of Hamas and the failed Mossad attempt to assassinate Mishal in 1997.