Once again, Israel determined who became the head of Hamas. In Cairo this Monday [April 1], Khaled Meshaal was elected unanimously to head the movement’s political bureau and to be the leader who ultimately determines its policies.
At a conference of the political bureau members in Khartoum just over a year ago, Meshaal announced that he would not run for the position again, effectively announcing his retirement. “I’m tired,” he said, “but I will continue serving as a loyal soldier in Hamas’ army of reservists.” The truth is that at that particular moment in time, Meshaal had plenty of reasons to announce his retirement, but none of them had to do with exhaustion. It makes much more sense to assume that he thought he would lose, given opposition by the movement’s leaders in Gaza to the diplomatic strategies he pursued.
Hamas official Dr. Mahmoud al-Zahar — and to a great degree Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, too — opposed the compromising attitude he adopted during the Cairo reconciliation talks with Palestinian Chairman Abu Mazen. There, Meshaal declared that Hamas would go from being a movement engaged in “armed resistance,” to one involved in a “popular uprising,” similar to the Arab Spring. Meshaal made the (correct) assessment that an armed struggle involving terrorist attacks and the firing of Qassam and Grad missiles at Israel would do nothing to alter Hamas’ standing. He realized that Israel is an established fact, and that the Palestinians would have to learn to live with it.
His problem was that this approach was deemed illegitimate and essentially off-limits to his colleagues in the movement’s leadership. In other words, Meshaal was on the verge of becoming a “dead horse” politically.
But then came Operation Pillar of Defense, right in the middle of elections to the Hamas political bureau, and the situation was turned on its head. The elections were postponed, and conditions on the ground changed. Hamas came out of the military operation much stronger, at least according to Palestinian and Arab public opinion. It was perceived as being the sovereign authority in a territory that withstood Israel’s military onslaught with its dignity intact.
Even if deep inside, Meshaal — and Ismail Haniyeh, Meshaal's deputy Moussa Abu Marzouk and Mahmoud al-Zahar as well — is fully aware that things would have looked very different if Israel had thrown all its military might at them, the rockets fired at Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the sirens that sent millions of Israelis scurrying for their shelters gave Hamas and its supporters the one thing that they needed most of all. It imbued them with a sense of pride.
After Operation Pillar of Defense and the beneficial winds of encouragement blowing from Egypt, Qatar, Tunisia and the other Arab states, Khaled Meshaal felt that Gaza had opened up to the world. There was now a chance for him to be accepted in the international arena and with this, to break the siege that Israel imposed on Gaza and its government. He believed that a strengthened Hamas is exactly what would allow the movement to reposition itself as the leading force in Palestinian politics, and that it would enable Hamas to challenge the PLO’s claim that it is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. As of now, there is no one in the Arab world who can challenge the fact that Hamas is a valid organization.
Meshaal knew well how to identify the opportunity that presented itself to him, and to reap its fruits. Right after Operation Pillar of Defense, he came to Gaza and delivered a very assertive speech, utterly unlike the more conciliatory approach that he had taken on the eve of the military operation. In it, he appealed directly to the international community and said:
“If you have some other way to bring back Palestine, Jerusalem and the refugees, then tell us about it. We’ve tried for 64 years, and the only method that has proved itself is resistance.” It is certainly worth noting the nuances here. The path of “popular resistance” meaning ''unarmed resistance,'' which was part of Meshaal’s earlier lexicon, completely disappeared from his speech, and was replaced with the word “resistance” (muqawama) only, which allowed everyone to interpret it in their own way. Meshaal still is, after all, a very sharp politician.
Then Meshaal began hinting to everyone around him, but especially to his most recent patron, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, the emir of Qatar, that if the movement demands it of him, he would reconsider his previous announcement about an early retirement. The emir of Qatar raised the gauntlet, and to everyone’s “surprise,” his efforts at persuasion paid off. Khaled Meshaal was elected head of the Hamas political bureau, much to the disappointment of his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouk, who ran against him. Abu Marzouk will now remain in Cairo, the site of the political bureau’s new headquarters after it was forced to leave Damascus. Meshaal will continue visiting the Arab states to convince them to throw their full support behind a reinvigorated Hamas. Ismail Haniyeh, who withdrew his candidacy for head of the political bureau once he realized that Meshaal was galloping back to center stage, will return to Gaza, hoping to remain prime minister there, and to eventually become prime minister in the West Bank as well.
It would not be wildly speculative to conclude that once he is elected, Meshaal plans to lead Hamas toward reconciliation with Abu Mazen and a triumphant entry into the PLO as a full member of that organization. This will be followed by an announcement setting a date for elections in the Palestinian Authority, including elections for the head of the Palestinian Authority, the president of Palestine, the Rais.
Meshaal plans to run for the position of head of the PLO and to undermine the Fatah’s standing as the “sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” once and for all. It is a position that the Fatah has held since it was first founded by first PLO Chairman Ahmed Shukeiri and Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat on June 2, 1964. In other words, Meshaal was the first to co-opt the idea that, “If you can’t beat them, join them.”
Now, everything seems to indicate that all those who didn’t want to deal with Meshaal as leader of Hamas will have to deal with him as head of the Palestinian Authority instead.
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas.