Analysis: Hamas on the move, seeks Palestinian ascendancy

GAZA/JERUSALEM Wed Feb 1, 2012 12:01pm EST

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (C) smiles at reporters after his meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah at the Royal Palace in Amman January 29, 2012. REUTERS/Ali Jarekji

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal (C) smiles at reporters after his meeting with Jordan's King Abdullah at the Royal Palace in Amman January 29, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Ali Jarekji

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - 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.

Hamas' ties to Syria and Iran are changing.

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 distinctly different directions for high-level talks, and they began to look intriguingly like rivals.

Hamas leader in exile Khaled Meshaal, long based in Syria, went to Jordan to see Western-backed King Abdullah, whose father made peace with Israel in 1994. Meshaal may move his headquarters there or to the 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 set off for talks with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israel's sworn enemy.

Iran is displeased with Hamas over its 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.

Hamas operates behind a smokescreen of rhetoric. The workings of its collective leadership are notoriously hard to read. Spokesmen deny any internal power struggle or divisions.

But analysts believe Meshaal has decided to end his close association with a Syria now in crisis, to pursue reconciliation with the pro-peace Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, 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," Gaza political analyst Hani Habib said. "His position did not go down well with Gaza leaders."

Israeli analyst Matti Steinberg of Haifa University says 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 military jihad against Israel and go along with Abbas's idea of "popular resistance" through non-violent mass protests, Steinberg said. Hamas hardliners insist on the right to "armed resistance."

Analysts speculate that Meshaal's goal may be to end the isolation of his movement and make it an essential partner in Middle East negotiations, one that Israel and the West can no longer afford to ostracize as a terrorist group.

This would necessitate loosening ties with Iran.

LEADERSHIP VOTE

Meshaal, 55, surprised Hamas last month by announcing he would step down before an internal leadership vote due in March, after 14 years at the helm. Few analysts take this seriously.

They think he wants to be renominated to an unprecedented fourth term, after flushing out and defeating opponents of his new policies and asserting full control to lead the Islamist movement to the forefront in the Palestinian territories.

The political and spiritual roots of Hamas lie with the Sunni Arab Muslim Brotherhood, not with the Shi'ite Muslim 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 Shi'ite powers, Hamas is embarrassed by ties to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his Alawite minority who, with roots in Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite 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 Shi'ite organization in the enclave.

After visits to Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey and Sudan this month, Haniyeh, 48, urged Abbas to cease peace talks and cooperation on security with the Israelis in the occupied West Bank.

"Now those who call for normalization with the occupier are the odd ones out," he said on Friday. Analysts say it is not clear whether Haniyeh, who had just made his first foreign tour in four years, sees himself as Meshaal's potential successor or simply his equal in Palestinian politics.

RELOCATION

If Meshaal moves to Jordan or Qatar, one of the most outspoken Arab critics of Syria's President Assad, Gaza analyst Ibrahim Abrash says it would mean more than just a relocation. "It would mean a move in politics too," he said.

But Gaza remains the stronghold of the movement.

"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 to stop rocket fire from Gaza, in which some 1,400 Palestinians died.

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 says. "Meshaal is accommodating himself with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt."

Hamas and Fatah have been bitter rivals since 2007 when the Islamists seized Gaza, splitting the Palestinians in two. Last year they agreed to a reconciliation pact, but it has yet to be implemented in spirit by the two groups with opposing policies.

Hamas rejects a permanent accord with Israel. It says there may be a long-term truce allowing the creation of a Palestinian state -- a status Israel regards as merely a war postponed.

Displaying a leniency some in Hamas deplore, Meshaal now says efforts to clinch a deal with Israel should get more time.

In Steinberg's view, he is "ready to advance reconciliation with Fatah in order to achieve a position of controlling" the currently Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organisation.

The PLO is the most important source of power for Abbas's Palestinian Authority, which Hamas sees as a stooge accepting agreements that relieve Israel of the burdens of occupation.

"Hamas' self-confidence has been boosted, and they are convinced that they could win a majority in the PLO," says Palestinian analyst Hani el Masri.

"But their main obstacle is Israel and the signed agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel ... At the moment Hamas does not have a clear position on signed agreements and responsibilities (with Israel)."

"Haniyeh is trying to portray himself as the coming leader of the Palestinians and their representative, and not just a leader of Hamas," says Abrash. "His moderate personality, his being in Gaza, in Palestine, and his speeches granted him wide popularity in the Arab and Muslim world, more than Meshaal."

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi. Additional reporting by Douglas Hamilton in Jerusalem and Jihan Abdallah in Ramallah; Writing by Douglas Hamilton; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)