Talking to Hamas

The group’s exiled leader on Syria, Palestinian politics, and Vanity Fair.

Khalid Mishaal

DAMASCUS, Syria—Khalid Mishaal, the exiled leader of Hamas, isn’t packing his bags just yet, but his comfortable headquarters in a Damascus suburb could be closed down soon. In a surprise announcement last week, Israel and Syria confirmed indirect peace talks for the first time in eight years. Israel has long demanded that Syria cut ties with groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, but now the Golan Heights are on the negotiating table once again, and the stakes have changed dramatically.

In a late-night meeting, Mishaal was relaxed and smiling. He offered me green tea with ginger and a plate of semolina cookies. Mishaal recited a Quranic verse to open the hourlong interview, but that was his only reference to religion. Mishaal was all about divining the recent momentous events in the region: Israeli-Syria peace talks brokered by Turkey and an agreement, mediated by Qatar, to avert a new Lebanese civil war. The agreement confirmed Hezbollah’s power and Syria’s regional influence. It was a surprisingly peaceful conclusion to an 18-month confrontation that had escalated into a street war in West Beirut. Both deals, seemingly concluded without U.S. involvement and counter to the Bush administration’s policies, will affect Palestinian politics.

“The question has been asked,” says Mishaal, “why did the Arabs move because of Lebanon, but they can’t do this for the Palestinians?” He was referring to the successful compromises that sealed the Lebanon deal, a model of what Mishaal called a “no-win, no-lose” formula where local adversaries agree to share power. “This is what we want internally—reconciliation on the Palestinian side.”

In January 2006, Hamas defeated the corrupt and ineffective Fattah movement in parliamentary elections; by 2007, a Palestinian civil war drove Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his administration out of the Gaza Strip, leaving rival governments operating in the West Bank, under Abbas, with Gaza under Hamas control. Negotiations over a unity government have stalled.

When I ask him why he believes the no-win, no-loss model didn’t work in Palestinian negotiations, he said, “The United States and, more precisely, the Bush administration prevent Palestinian reconciliation.”

While the administration was mostly absent from last week’s major breakthroughs, President George W. Bush has staked much of what is left of his foreign-policy political capital on a peace track between Israel and the Palestinians. The administration has been adamant that it is opposed to any openings or dialogue with Hamas.

As for the latest announcement that Syria and Israel are prepared to open peace talks again, Mishaal said that he supports Syria’s decision but that he believes these talks will come at the expense of the more difficult and complicated Palestinian negotiations. He did not make these views public in Damascus in the days following the announcement, only talking about his reservations in a news conference a few days later in Tehran, where his views were more in line with Iran’s leadership and are likely to cause tensions in the close alliance between Syria and Iran.

When I asked whether Hamas’ position in Damascus could be at risk if Israel and Syria reach a settlement, Mishaal’s response left the question unanswered. “We are not a card in any hand, we are a liberation movement. Hamas is capable [of working] under different circumstances. Our real battle is inside Palestine.”

The Syrian regime has moved against Palestinian groups in Damascus before, most recently when it shuttered the media offices of Islamic Jihad and Hamas in 2003. After the Syria-Israel talks were confirmed last week, former Syrian Information Minister Mahdi Dahlallah was quoted as saying that if there is a peace agreement, “There will no longer be any need for resistance,” a reference to Hezbollah in Lebanon but also to Hamas.

In a sign of the importance of peace talks with Israel, Syrian President Bashar Assad took a personal role in the Lebanon negotiations, pressing Hezbollah to make last-minute concessions to seal the deal—the election of a compromise candidate for president, a power-sharing agreement in the Cabinet, and a formula for parliamentary elections in 2009. If negotiations for Lebanon had failed, that news would have overshadowed Syria’s success in opening serious, though indirect, talks with Israel.

But Hamas has cards to play, too. Despite the Bush administration’s warning against “appeasing extremists” through dialogue, Hamas has had a flurry of contacts in the waning months of the Bush administration. Mishaal confirmed that the French government has opened a political dialogue with Hamas, despite a rebuke from Washington. There is also “communication” with other European countries, he said. Mishaal joined diplomats at Norway’s National Day reception in Damascus this month. It is recognition that Hamas has support among Palestinians and will have to be engaged for the peace process to move forward.

Even Israel is talking to Hamas, with Egypt serving as the go-between in indirect negotiations over a cease-fire in Gaza. Opinion polls show a majority of Israelis want the government to go further, supporting direct talks with Hamas about Gaza and the release of Israeli soldier Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was seized inside Israel near the Gaza Strip in July 2006.

In April, former President Jimmy Carter visited Damascus for talks with Hamas. Carter spoke of a breakthrough, saying Hamas was prepared to accept Israel’s right to “live as a neighbor next door in peace.” The former president insisted that Hamas would not undermine Palestinian President Abbas’ efforts to reach a peace deal with Israel, although Hamas insists that a referendum must be held to confirm any deal Abbas makes. Carter was criticized by the Bush administration and by Israeli officials, but for Hamas, Carter’s visit opened the door for others to consider engagement. It was the beginning of a shift from the black-and-white polarization of the Bush years to a recognition that the power players in the region come in varying shades of gray.

Mishaal acknowledged that the Carter visit was “fruitful,” and he repeated his pledge to Carter that Shalit would be allowed to write a letter to his family. “The president requested the letter, and it’s out of respect for Carter we have agreed to that. We requested from our brothers in Gaza that they allow that letter, and it will be coming soon.”

Mishaal dismissed the prospects of progress on Palestinian issues during the remainder of Bush’s term. The Palestinian-Israeli peace track has shown little progress so far. Mishaal is waiting for the U.S. election to change the political landscape, and this seems to be the Syrian posture as well. They are eager to engage in indirect talks with the Israelis for the next few months, but they insist that serious U.S. involvement will be necessary to guarantee a final deal.

Mishaal insists that the Bush administration will never allow reconciliation between the feuding Palestinians factions as long as this president is in office. “The American administration is supporting a corrupt party to topple Palestinian democracy with arsenals and weapons. And that was shown in Vanity Fair magazine.”

This was a surprising reference for a militant Islamist leader. Vanity Fair published an article in the April 2008 issue alleging that the Bush administration conspired with a Palestinian warlord and his militia men to engineer a Palestinian civil war to reverse Hamas’ election victory. For Khalid Mishaal, this was proof that the American media had finally taken the Palestinian side in this long conflict. More important for him, it also signified that the long rule of the Bush administration was finally coming to a close.