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Is high-profile Meshaal setting stage to lead Hamas again?

The growing political activity of former Hamas politburo chief Khaled Meshaal has prompted some to believe he is either planning to return to Hamas leadership or enter the expected presidential election in the Palestinian territories.

The name of one-time Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal has been popping up lately in speculation that he is considering a return to head the group or even a run for president of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Meshaal, however, has made no such announcement.

Gal Berger, an expert on Palestinian affairs for Israel’s Kann News, tweeted Dec. 25 that former Hamas politburo chief Meshaal wants to retake the reins of Hamas in the movement's next internal election, with the support of Qatar and Turkey. This would be bad news for Israel, since the movement’s decision-making would thus come from outside the Palestinian territories, over which Israel wields significant control. Meshaal resides in Doha, Qatar.

Hassan Asfour, former Palestinian minister of nongovernmental organization affairs in Ramallah, wrote on the Amad news website Dec. 26 that Meshaal's attendance Dec. 18 at the Kuala Lumpur Islamic Summit paved the way for him as possible head of the PA in elections expected this year. This raises concerns among the PA about Hamas potentially starting a “Meshaal for President” campaign.

Neither Berger nor Asfour revealed their sources while talking about Meshaal's potential future in the Hamas leadership or as a presidential candidate, although his increased political activity is evident. At the Kuala Lumpur Summit, Meshaal met Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani.

Meshaal had also met with Erdogan in November, in June with the Qatari emir and in May with the Malaysian prime minister. During these meetings, officials reviewed developments in the Palestinian cause and the difficult situation in the Gaza Strip, and Meshaal thanked them for their pro-Palestine stances.

Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem told Al-Monitor the Israeli report was designed to undermine Hamas’ organizational unity. But, he added, "Hamas is a movement of institutions, and it is managed in an agreed-upon manner among its various components within the regulations.”

Meshaal led the movement’s politburo from 1996 to 2017. He made fundamental changes to its 1988 founding charter and issued its new political document in 2017. Meshaal also admitted in 2016 that the movement had made mistakes during its governmental experience in the Gaza Strip since 2007. In May 2017, Ismail Haniyeh won the movement’s internal elections and thus became its leader.

Ahmed Youssef, a former Haniyeh political adviser who heads the House of Wisdom Institute for Conflict Resolution and Governance in Gaza, told Al-Monitor, “Meshaal’s absence from the Hamas leadership has left a great vacuum behind, despite the current leadership’s attempts to fill it. His return to leadership is thus welcomed within the movement so as to restore its international and regional relations, and to renew financial and logistical support. Meshaal is well-appreciated both internally and externally, and Qatar and Turkey, in particular, see him as a flexible and diplomatic leader who goes in line with their leaders.”

Meshaal’s ties are focused on Qatar and Turkey, as he was estranged from Iran because he opposed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and led Hamas to leave Syria in 2012. However, Tehran’s rapprochement with Doha and Ankara eliminates its opposition to Meshaal’s return to the Hamas leadership, should he want it.

Abdel Sattar Qassem, a political science professor at An-Najah National University in Nablus in the West Bank, told Al-Monitor, “Meshaal is close to decision-making circles in Hamas. Even though he is no longer in charge, he has great influence among its leaders. In the Palestinian arena, [President Mahmoud Abbas] does not have an issue with him. Meshaal's chances of heading Hamas are increasing since he lives abroad, which gives him freedom of movement without having to be under the Israeli siege and the Egyptian restrictions on Gaza.”

He added, however, “It's true that Meshaal's domestic, regional and international relations are wide, but his problem is still with Syria, and it must be resolved.”

Meshaal's relations extend to the West, as he has met with former and current European and US officials. Most recently, Israel TV revealed Dec. 31 that Meshaal met in Doha with Robert Malley, CEO of the International Crisis Group. Malley was former US President Bill Clinton's Middle East adviser. In 2015, Meshaal met with former British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Doha and in 2012 with former US President Jimmy Carter in Cairo. In these meetings, he focused on publicizing the Palestinian cause and breaking Hamas’ international isolation.

Meanwhile, Nayef Rajoub, former minister of endowments and religious affairs in Haniyeh's government and a Palestinian Legislative Council member for Hamas, told Al-Monitor, “Hamas believes in distributing roles among its leaders, changing them and pumping in new blood, because we do not sanctify leaders like others do. Hamas has been chaired by several leaders since 1987. Meshaal's return to the Hamas leadership, which he is worthy of, is subject to an electoral and consultative process, according to what internal organizational frameworks find fit.”

Sari Orabi, a Palestinian expert on Islamist movements, told Al-Monitor, “Although Meshaal has stepped down from the Hamas leadership, he has multiplied his political activity, which may indicate the possibility of him returning to lead the movement regardless of internal balances and alliances. Regionally, [his return would] require him to improve the movement’s other alliances, diversify its resources to reduce total dependence on Iran both financially and militarily, and to address the misunderstanding over the Syrian issue.”

Broad consensus around Meshaal and his competence to return to the Hamas leadership is a matter to be reckoned with. However, this scenario depends on many considerations. First, is he really interested in returning? Second, do other members have legitimate aspirations to compete for the Hamas leadership? Third, the movement could decide to hold another round of internal elections that would see Haniyeh remain at the helm for the next four years, in light of the close relations between him and Meshaal.

No specific date has been set yet for Hamas’ next internal elections, although they are expected in the summer of 2021 since the last elections were held in May 2017.

A senior Hamas leader told Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity, “The increased talk about Meshaal's return to the Hamas leadership seeks to disrupt his movement and incite against him, despite the fact that Hamas is united and cohesive and steers clear from internal disputes and power struggles. In May 2017, Meshaal smoothly handed over the reins to Haniyeh and has remained a supporter of the new leadership since, abiding by its decisions and carrying out the tasks assigned to him. At the end of the day, Hamas is committed to the ballot box and the results of future elections.”

Regardless of all the speculation, Meshaal hasn't announced his intentions. He would need to arrange his internal affairs within the movement to improve his chances should he want to take charge once again. Meanwhile, the Gaza Strip will remain the most influential constituency of Hamas, even if the movement’s leadership is abroad. Gaza will always be the movement’s main geographical region, the symbol of this large organization, and the center of its military apparatus and financial resources.

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