Political winds from the Arab Spring are filling the sails of the Palestinian Islamist organization Hamas, as it seeks a course out of international isolation to the forefront of the Palestinian national movement.
This week, the two top men in the 25-year-old organization dedicated to crushing the Jewish state and establishing Palestine “from the [Jordan] river to the sea” headed off in different directions for high-level talks — and began to look intriguingly like rivals.
Khaled Meshaal, 55, the Hamas leader in exile long based in Syria, went to Jordan to see Western-backed King Abdullah, whose father made peace with Israel in 1994. He may move his headquarters there or to the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar, which brokered his first visit since Jordan expelled Hamas in 1999.
From the Gaza Strip where he serves as Hamas’ Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyeh, 48, set off for talks with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President Israel’s sworn enemy.
Iran is displeased with Hamas’ failure to support Tehran’s main Arab ally Syria in its crisis. A diplomatic source says Iran has provided no funds to Hamas since August.
Analysts believe Mr. Meshaal has decided to end his close association with Syria to pursue reconciliation with the pro-peace Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, and to soften his anti-peace stance.
“Meshaal has been showing a tendency towards more flexibility. He is sincere about accomplishing reconciliation and he was flexible about President Abbas’ peace moves,” said Hani Habib, a Gaza political analyst. “His position did not go down well with Gaza leaders.”
Israeli analyst Matti Steinberg of Haifa University says Mr. Meshaal “quite clearly wants to advance reconciliation with Fatah” and to speak about a Palestinian state within the lines created by the 1967 Middle East war, rather than recovering the Palestine that existed before Israel’s creation in 1948.
He is also ready to suspend the jihad against Israel and go along with Mr. Abbas’s idea of “popular resistance” through non-violent mass protests, Mr. Steinberg said. Hamas hardliners insist on the right to “armed resistance.”
Analysts speculate Mr. Meshaal’s goal may be to end Hamas’ isolation and make it an essential partner in Middle East negotiations, one Israel and the West can no longer afford to ostracize as a terrorist group.
This would mean loosening ties with Iran.
The group’s political and spiritual roots lie with the Sunni Arab Muslim Brotherhood, not with the Shiite radicalism of non-Arab Iran, which has funded and armed Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon as proxies to threaten Israel.
In a Middle East increasingly divided between Sunni and Shiite powers, Hamas is embarrassed by ties to Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian President, and his Alawite minority who, with roots in Shiite Islam, are now on the verge of civil war with Syria’s rebelling Sunni majority and its Muslim Brotherhood leaders.
Iran has certainly provided Hamas with money and — according to Israel — rockets and other weapons. But Shiite thinking, while not seen as a threat, is not accepted in Gaza. Hamas security has clamped down on attempts by its few supporters to build up a Shiite organization there.
After visiting Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Sudan this month, Mr. Haniyeh urged Mr. Abbas to cease peace talks and co-operation on security with the Israelis in the West Bank.
If Mr. Meshaal moves to Jordan or Qatar, one of the most outspoken Arab critics of Mr. Assad, Gaza analyst Ibrahim Abrash, says it would mean more than just a relocation: “It would mean a move in politics, too.” But Gaza remains the movement’s stronghold.
“Haniyeh is sitting in Gaza and nothing has really changed, while Meshaal is looking for a new home and in flux. Given that, I would say Haniyeh is sitting pretty,” said a Western diplomat.
Some in Hamas believe there is no need to take a softer line with Israel because Islamists, now in the ascendancy in the region, would deter any repeat of Israel’s 2009 offensive. Mr. Steinberg disagrees. “The Muslim Brothers don’t want trouble with Israel from Gaza while they are consolidating power in Egypt, which will take several years,” he said. “Meshaal is accommodating himself with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.”