Israel Pulse

Will Moscow move Meshaal toward Abbas?

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Article Summary
Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal's upcoming visit to Moscow is unlikely to bear fruit unless the movement is willing to dismantle its armed forces and make peace with the Palestinian Authority.

Khaled Meshaal, the head of Hamas’ political bureau, has been invited to Moscow. The invitation was extended by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov during an Aug. 3 meeting in Doha. Meshaal remains in Doha under the auspices of the Qatari emirate, but his relations with the current emir, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, are nothing more than correct. The financial assistance being provided isn't the same as under the previous emir, Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, but as long as Meshaal is able to run the movement’s affairs from the emirate, he cannot complain.

Like the rest of the movement’s leaders, Meshaal is looking high and low for a solution to Hamas’ existential problem and the intolerable plight of the Palestinians living in the Gaza Strip. With the almost complete disconnect between Hamas and Iran and the latter’s discontinuation of military aid, Saudi Arabia has now become the movement’s patron du jour. At the same time, Qatar's assistance has been reduced to a minimum in light of the reconciliation between Doha and Cairo and the categorical demand by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that Qatar not funnel money to Hamas, which has been accused of assisting the jihadist organizations in the Sinai Peninsula.

The statement about being invited to Moscow was issued by Meshaal himself after his meeting with Lavrov in Doha. Meshaal is trying to show that it’s business as usual, and despite the movement’s woes, he is still getting an invitation from a world power to come for a visit.

In May 2006, another delegation of Hamas leaders headed by Meshaal held a working meeting in Moscow with the Russian foreign minister two months after Hamas had formed its first government. In the background was a demand by the Quartet — the European Union, Russia, the United Nations and the United States — that the movement recognize Israel and accept the peace accords the Palestinians had signed with Israel if it wanted to be recognized by the international community and have Israel lift the economic sanctions it had imposed on Hamas and Gaza that were then followed by the United States and the West.

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That was supposed to be a historic visit, and I traveled to Moscow to cover it. Much like today, back then Russia also wanted to take part in the diplomatic process in the Middle East. Inviting a Hamas leader to Moscow for a meeting with Lavrov was meant to show the world, and particularly the United States, that only Moscow could get Hamas leaders off their high horses, and only the Russians could make them more flexible.

A horde of journalists, myself included, waited outside the Foreign Ministry in Moscow after Meshaal entered the building. The meeting lasted less than half an hour. Meshaal kept reiterating his negatives in response to the Quartet's three principles  no to recognizing Israel, no to accepting the agreements with Israel and no to ending jihad against Israel.

Lavrov instantly realized with whom he was dealing and dismissed Meshaal an hour before their meeting was scheduled to end. Meshaal was quick to speak to reporters and reiterate his three answers. That was a missed opportunity. What he should have done was act like a politician and give Lavrov some indication that there was room to discuss the Quartet’s principles and that the proposals would be examined. Instead, he was arrogant and intractable. Now Hamas is begging for its life.

Whether it was Lavrov’s initiative or at Meshaal’s request, the upcoming visit does not aim to turn back the clock. There are things that Lavrov and even President (PA) and President Mahmoud Abbas, with whom Moscow has been fostering close ties. Only reconciliation with Fatah and the PA will help to rehabilitate Gaza and by extension Hamas.

At this time, however, Abbas is showing no signs of wanting to reconcile with Meshaal’s movement. Abbas, rightly, is not interested in stepping into Gaza’s complex ring, where he only stands to lose. Hamas, by contrast, despite its uncertain future, still acts arrogantly and intransigently, refusing to dismantle the huge army it has created in Gaza.

The Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades are still the dominant force within the movement. The word of Mohammed al-Deif, leader of the military wing, is stronger than Meshaal’s. Saudi financial assistance could potentially weaken the military wing and in turn strengthen the political side, but until this happens, why would Abbas step into Gaza and try to find creative solutions for its recovery while being threatened by Hamas’ army? He has enough problems of his own without that scenario.

Throughout its existence, Hamas' leaders have acted arrogantly and intransigently. This was the case when Meshaal visited Moscow some nine years ago and also in the summer of 2014, when the movement was sure that another military campaign against Israel would solve its problems at a reasonable cost. The same is true again in its attempts to rebuild a devastated Gaza in the wake of the movement’s mistakes.

Meshaal will shortly arrive in Moscow. A summit with Abbas might be scheduled. For the diplomatic meetings to have results, it is high time for Hamas' leaders to recognize that their concept is wrong. There has been no change in Hamas’ situation, nor will there be unless it decides to revolutionize the movement. Such a revolution entails an understanding that a movement seeking recognition as a political force cannot have its own army, certainly not one that leads its officials by the nose and dictates their conduct and policy.

Truth be told, Hamas finds it difficult, almost impossible, to recognize Israel’s existence. This is a process that cannot take place overnight. It requires a conceptual change and an ideological shift. For years, Hamas has been selling its supporters an undeliverable promise of wiping out Israel. Yet, its leaders know this is a fantasy and have adopted a different terminology.

They have yet to utter “yes, yes, yes” to the Quartet’s demands, but before doing that, they have to offer another yes. They have to recognize the sovereignty of Abbas, whose troops were forcibly ousted from Gaza in June 2007. Until that happens, Hamas will continue looking for lifelines as it sinks.

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Found in: sergey lavrov, saudi arabia, russia, qatar, mahmoud abbas, khaled meshaal, izz ad-din al-qassam brigades, hamas

Shlomi Eldar is a columnist 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, reporting on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.

Eldar has published two books: "Eyeless in Gaza" (2005), which anticipated the Hamas victory in the subsequent Palestinian elections, and "Getting to Know Hamas" (2012), which won the Yitzhak Sadeh Prize for Military Literature. He was awarded the Ophir Prize (Israeli Oscar) twice for his documentary films: "Precious Life" (2010) and "Foreign Land" (2018). "Precious Life" was also shortlisted for an Oscar and was broadcast on HBO. He has a master's degree in Middle East studies from the Hebrew University. On Twitter: @shlomieldar

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