DOHA, Qatar (Reuters) - Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said the de facto recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state won by his rival Mahmoud Abbas should be seen alongside Gaza’s latest conflict with Israel as a single, bold strategy that could empower all Palestinians.
Meshaal said the short war which claimed 162 Palestinian lives and five Israelis was concluded on terms set by his Islamist movement and ended its isolation, creating a new mood conducive to reconciliation with Abbas’s nationalist Fatah.
In an interview with Reuters in Doha, he compared Israel’s mood of dejection with the jubilation of Palestinians in Gaza and across the Israeli-occupied West Bank led by Abbas, insisting that “for the first time a ceasefire was achieved on conditions set by Hamas, and in the presence of the Americans”.
Meshaal strongly backed the diplomatic initiative by Palestinian Authority President Abbas to upgrade Palestinian status at the United Nations to observer state which the General assembly endorsed on Thursday in New York.
Diplomatically, this puts the stateless Palestinians on a par with the Holy See, but politically it would help “unify Palestinian national efforts” as part of the reconciliation process with Abbas’s nationalist Fatah movement, Meshaal said.
“I told Abou Mazen (Abbas) we want this move to be part of a national Palestinian strategy” that includes “the (armed) resistance which excelled in Gaza and gave an example of the ability of the Palestinian people to resist and steadfastly confront the occupier”, a confident Meshaal said.
The coming to power of Hamas allies in the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which played the key role in brokering the recent ceasefire, and “the defeat of the enemy in Gaza” have created a new environment that should allow Palestinians to form a unity government.
“I am optimistic”, Meshaal said, “there is a new mood that allows us to achieve reconciliation”. Dressed in a black suit and an open neck shirt, he was speaking at a hotel in Doha, where he has lived since leaving Syria earlier this year.
“When we reconcile, unite and end the divisions and have one political marja‘eya (the Islamic word for leadership) and one political system, then we will be stronger and better and we can achieve more, and our response to the Israeli aggression in all its forms will be better”, the Hamas politburo leader said.
The Fatah controlled PA in the West Bank was expelled from Gaza after Hamas won a bloody civil war in 2007, after emerging as the victors in the 2006 Palestinian general elections.
Meshaal, who survived a Mossad assassination attempt in Amman in 1997 when Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu was last in power, has been reenergised politically by the Arab Spring uprisings that have swept the region and installed a string of sympathetic Islamist leaders.
When he appeared alongside President Mohamed Mursi of Egypt in Cairo after the ceasefire, his confident and relaxed body language would have confused any casual observer as to which one of them was the leader of Egypt.
Gaza, long subject to an Israeli military and economic blockade, is breaking out of its isolation, with recent high level visits from Qatar, Turkey, Egypt and the Arab League.
“There is a new Arab presence, there is a different kind of support. Gaza did not seem isolated in this war”, he said, as it was in the devastating 2008-09 conflict with Israel.
Meshaal, 56, said he had no intention to continue as Hamas leader despite calls on him “internally and externally” to carry on. The group, whose 1988 charter formally calls for the destruction of Israel, has been holding a leadership ballot for several months to decide who will succeed Meshaal.
Hamas ambivalence towards the Palestinian Authority, which it has sometimes derided as an Israeli subsidiary, mirrors its ambiguity on the future shape of a Palestinian state.
Under Meshaal’s leadership, the Islamists have evolved in an uneasy balance between maximalism and pragmatism - refusing to renounce pre-1948 “Palestine”, but willing to accept de facto a state on the lands Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War - the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.
“As for the Palestinian state we believe it (should be) on all our Palestinian land,” but there was a wish to unify the Palestinian and Arab positions on a common programme. Hamas accepted establishing a state on the ‘67 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital, and the right of return (of refugees) preserved. “We accepted it but not at the expense of recognising Israel or giving away Palestinian rights but as a common factor.”
Meshaal said Israel would give nothing in negotiations unless Palestinians were demonstrably strong on the ground.
“Any Palestinian who wants a Palestinian state, even along the 67 borders, has to know that the road to that is (armed) struggle and exerting all forms of Arab and Palestinian pressure on the Israeli enemy”.
“Negotiating without powerful cards on the ground has no meaning,” said Meshaal. “It will turn into begging. This enemy doesn’t give anything unless under pressure”.
Abbas had a diplomatic moment in the sun at the U.N. on Thursday, but nothing else to show for a negotiating strategy that has seen successive Israeli governments expanding Jewish settlements on the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, with little prospect remaining of a viable Palestinian state.
Some analysts see this pushing Fatah and Hamas together.
The Hamas leader has also won over some non-Islamists by coming out strongly against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s attempt to crush the 20-months long uprising against his rule.
Relations with non-Arab Shi‘ite Iran, a main financier and supplier of arms to Hamas, also suffered according to Meshaal.
“No doubt, Iran supported us for a long time and its support was big,” said Meshaal, who peppers his arguments with verses from the Koran or classical poetry. “We have clearly differed with Iran over Syria and there is no doubt that the Syrian crisis has affected our relations with Iran.”
Meshaal voiced gratitude to Iran and Syria for hosting him for many years when the group was shunned as a “terrorist” organisation by the U.S. and Israel, but said it could not compromise its principles.
“We don’t interfere in other people’s affairs, but we cannot support any regime or leader who is locked in a bloody battle with his own people,” said Meshaal who lived in exile in Damascus until he left earlier this year.
“When the Syrian crisis began we advised Syrian officials to resort to a wise policy to resolve the issue and address the aspirations of their people because they were legitimate. They insisted on their military option... At a certain moment we felt that they wanted us to have a position to support the official policy so we rejected that and we left Damascus in January.”
Meshaal said Assad would not be able to win the battle against his own people and that it was only a matter of time before change came through.
“God only knows how things will unfold but history taught us that the people will win in the end,” added Meshaal.
Born in Silwad near the West Bank city of Ramallah, Meshaal has steered Hamas through the upheaval unleashed by the Arab Spring uprisings, deploying what associates describe as deft diplomatic skills to navigate the turbulence.
The Hamas leader in exile said he would pay a historic visit to the Gaza strip next week, after years abroad, to mark the Islamist’s movement 25th anniversary. “I will be returning to my country. This is my dream.”
Asked if he was worried Israel might try to assassinate him, he said: “God is my main guarantor and protector. I only rely on God, nobody dies before his time is up. And the one with a cause doesn’t fear death.”
Editing by Philippa Fletcher