A Place for Mr. Meshaal

Article excerpt

Byline: Babak Dehghanpisheh

No one wants the leader of Hamas at the Mideast peace table. But everyone needs him there.

Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, turns away in disgust from the big flat-screen television in his heavily guarded office in Damascus. He's been following the news bulletins for weeks, ever since the initial announcement that President Obama had set up

face-to-face talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Hamas leader certainly wasn't looking for any breakthroughs from the meetings, and he was scarcely surprised when Netanyahu brushed off Abbas's demand that Israel extend its 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. But Meshaal is visibly annoyed by news that an Arab League summit has advised Abbas not to walk out on the negotiations, and instead to accept a one-month recess. "It will not solve the problem," Meshaal complains. "It will just postpone the problem."

Many people would say the Hamas leader himself is an outsize part of the problem. The U.S. government lists Meshaal as a "specially designated global terrorist," and his group's rocket attacks against Israeli civilians in 2008 provoked an invasion that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead. The Hamas charter, which renounces "initiatives, and so-called peaceful initiatives and international conferences," still calls for Israel's destruction. But the fact is that as peace talks stumble fitfully on, Meshaal desperately wants a place at the table. Hamas already talks to Washington via unofficial channels including former president Jimmy Carter. "But this is not enough," he told NEWSWEEK near the end of a two-hour interview. "The American administration should hear from us directly."

For now, Hamas is taking a much smaller step, seeking to end its conflicts with Abbas's U.S. backed Fatah organization. Representatives of the two groups met in Damascus last month, and another session was scheduled for Oct. 20. As far as Meshaal is concerned, those are the talks that matter now. Hamas has been feuding with Fatah since 2006, when Palestinian voters, fed up with Fatah's longstanding corruption and mismanagement, gave an unexpected victory to his party. An all-out civil war erupted the following summer, leaving Gaza in the hands of the Islamists and the West Bank under Fatah control. The present situation is untenable. "We all understand that national reconciliation is an obligation if we are ever to achieve a free and independent state," says Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya. "We don't want to be an obstacle."

State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley says Hamas is excluding itself by its refusal to accept Israel's existence and renounce violence. But the fact is that no one is in a hurry to bring Meshaal in. For one thing, U.S. officials don't want to undermine Abbas, the man they view as the Palestinians' most credible peacemaker. More than that, no one wants to reward Hamas's intransigence, a move Abbas would surely see as a betrayal. And his response would be mild compared with Israel's. "Even to suggest an opening to Hamas would blow every fuse in the Israeli political establishment," says an administration official who asked not to be named discussing the politics of a U.S. ally. For that matter, Obama himself is facing enough domestic opposition without talking to terrorists. "The blowback here would be extreme," says Robert Malley, a former member of President Clinton's Mideast peace team now at the International Crisis Group.

Still, Meshaal sounds more moderate these days than he once did. Although he still calls for bigger concessions than Israel is likely to grant, they're at least within the realm of rational discussion. …