KHALED MESHAL, the head of Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist movement widely egarded in the West—and even more so in Israel—as a gang of terrorists bent on destroying the Jewish state, exudes a tranquil confidence as he calmly lays out his case in a well-guarded safe-house in Damascus, the Syrian capital. “The world will deal with us not because it wants to deal with us but because it has to deal with us…Hamas is a moderate and open organisation that is ready to talk to anybody. It has emerged as an important player in the region. It’s clear it cannot be bypassed.”
An increasing number of Western politicians, diplomats and soldiers, though not the American administration nor yet the European Union and certainly not Israel, are groping towards that conclusion. The trimly bearded, stocky Mr Meshal, relaxed and often humorous, plainly thinks time is on his side. Aged 54, he has the demeanour of a winner. Indeed his Islamist movement won the only general election, in 2006, that it has contested. Hamas views Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinians’ internationally recognised president, who heads the rival and more secular Fatah party, merely as a “transitional figure”.
Ever fewer Israelis can imagine doing a deal with Fatah, let alone with Hamas, though President Shimon Peres, in a cryptic comment, recently seemed to urge Europeans to try drawing Hamas into the diplomatic fold. Most Israelis think Hamas wants to throw them into the sea. Besides, they would struggle to forgive it for the scores of bombings and attacks its people carried out during the intifada, or uprising, between 2000 and 2005, killing hundreds of Israeli civilians and soldiers, often blowing themselves up at the same time. In any event, Hamas is still isolated from the main diplomatic game, as Fatah’s more emollient negotiators strive to make headway.
This week, three months after Barack Obama gave Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, the coldest shoulder ever felt by an Israeli leader, the two men had a politer meeting in Washington, DC. This time Mr Obama made the standard assurance that America would never let Israel down, even implying rare support for Israel’s nuclear deterrent. Mr Netanyahu, he averred, was “willing to take risks for peace”. For his part, Israel’s prime minister said he would take “concrete steps” to enable the indirect “proximity talks” between his government and the Palestinians’ more moderate wing, to develop into face-to-face talks that could, in hopeful theory, lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state beside an Israeli one. There has been no indication, so far, what those concrete steps might be—or whether Mr Netanyahu is truly bent on getting a deal.
Mr Abbas, who was given red-carpet treatment by Mr Obama in Washington only a month ago, has no apparent desire to bring Hamas to the negotiating table any time soon. The two factions are still at loggerheads. A year and a half after its election win, Hamas violently evicted Mr Abbas’s Fatah from the Gaza Strip. Since then, Fatah has sat back as Israel, increasingly criticised by most of the rest of the world, has blockaded the territory. It was partly thanks to the clumsily lethal confrontation between Israeli commandos and a flotilla that challenged the blockade that Hamas, as Gaza’s ruling party, has stridden back into the limelight.
The pro-Western Arab countries most closely involved, in particular Egypt, are still keen to bolster Mr Abbas’s party and keep Hamas out of the negotiating game. For several years Egypt’s government has been trying, after a fashion, to patch up differences between Hamas and Fatah, but in reality it loathes Hamas, originally a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, because it bitterly opposes Egypt’s regime and its ailing president, Hosni Mubarak.
Meanwhile Hamas waits on the sidelines as the proximity talks stumble, despite the doggedly hopeful assertions of Mr Obama’s Middle East officials. George Mitchell, America’s envoy, keeps his cards to his chest, unable so far to point to any gains. Mr Abbas’s Palestinians, who insist that two of the biggest issues—redrawing the borders of the would-be states and arranging their security—should be tackled first, say the talks have got nowhere.
They are especially concerned that Mr Netanyahu should extend his freeze on the building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank after the promised ten-month period elapses in September. It was his refusal to do so and his determination to exclude East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians see as their future capital, that previously so enraged Mr Obama that he refused to welcome Mr Netanyahu warmly the last time he visited the White House. Mr Obama and the Israelis have talked up this week’s meeting: the American president is acutely conscious, in the run-up to November’s congressional elections, that he has been accused by the Republicans of being unduly harsh towards Israel.
So Mr Meshal is waiting for the talks to fail, hoping for a groundswell of diplomatic calls for Hamas to be part of future negotiations, even if it refuses to recognise Israel first. He notes with relish the weakening diplomatic clout of Egypt, the reluctance of Saudi Arabia to take the lead, the rise of Turkey and its froideur with Israel following the flotilla episode that left nine Turks dead, and the resilience of both Syria and Iran, both backers of Hamas. At the same time, he savours the apparent enfeeblement of America, as it flounders in Afghanistan and fails to pacify Iraq. “They can’t even deal with the Somali pirates,” says Hamas’s foreign-affairs spokesman, Osama Hamdan, with a chuckle.
A growing number of Americans, though not yet officials in the administration, are keen to seek him out, claims Mr Meshal. “The American administration and European officials are having to hold themselves back [from talking to Hamas] and that’s a bigger burden for them than for us. The world must engage with us, if not today, then tomorrow. Internally, the EU knows it must meet Hamas. The current policy is a burden on the Europeans.”
Mr Meshal also points to a split in the peacemaking Quartet of the EU, Russia, the UN and the United States. The Quartet says it will not engage with Hamas unless, among other things, it recognises Israel. Yet Russia’s president, Dmitri Medvedev, recently held talks with Mr Meshal, making it plain he intends to foster relations.
Chicken and egg
There may be wishful thinking in some of this. While Mr Meshal predictably exults in Turkey’s new warmth towards Hamas, Israel still has strong links with the government in Ankara, despite the current spat. Yet Europeans are growing less insistent, so far mostly in private, that Hamas should recognise Israel before it can join the diplomatic fray. Hamas implies that recognition would come at the end of negotiations, not at the start. Mr Meshal has reiterated many times in the past few years that he accepts two states either side of the boundary drawn before the Israel-Arab war of 1967. “We’ve given positive signals that we’re ready to be realistic and to deal pragmatically with the current situation.”
He repeatedly endorses the “national reconciliation document” of 2006 that grew out of an agreement between prominent Hamas and Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails (where at least 6,300 still languish), which clearly calls for a Palestinian state along the 1967 border, contradicting the fearsome Hamas charter of 1988, which demands a state on all of pre-1948 Palestine, including what became Israel. Less helpfully, the document of 2006 also insists on Palestinian refugees’ “right of return” to land and homes lost after Israel was founded. And Mr Meshal still stubbornly refuses to disavow the Hamas charter, dismissing it breezily as an old document in reality overtaken by events yet still—by implication—useful as bargaining chip.更多信息请访问：http://www.24en.com/
That will hardly convince the Israelis, but Mr Meshal sounds endlessly wary of making concessions that might not then be reciprocated. In his view, Mr Abbas and Fatah have done so with humiliating frequency. “We have learnt from the experience of past PLO negotiations,” he says, referring to the Palestine Liberation Organisation, the umbrella body of which Fatah is the chief part, which recognised Israel in 1988. “We are different from the PLO. First, we don’t give in to threats—we’re not afraid. And second, we are patient.”