Last year, Khaled Mashal was considered a lame-duck figure to many in the Hamas movement. His power was challenged by hardliners based in the Gaza Strip. His refusal to support Syria’s Bashar al-Assad over the rebellion cost the Islamist group a vital lifeline of support. A reconciliation agreement with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas that was promoted by Mashal stalled immediately after it was signed.
Things got so bad that Mashal decided to announce his resignation as Hamas’ political bureau chief, ending what would have been a sixteen year reign.
Fast forward to today and Khaled Mashal has defied the expectations of many. After an internal election process that was drawn out for a year and kept compartmentalized from outsiders, members of Hamas’ ruling council once again elected him this month. Despite all the reported division within Hamas, Mashal emerged as the viable candidate that its different factions could accept.
As much as some in Gaza would liked to have scuttled his nomination, Mashal was perhaps the only man that could garner the cash and attention that Hamas so desperately needs from its patrons in Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.
The fact that Mashal has often been inconsistent in his actions and unpredictable in his statements makes it difficult to predict how his reelection affects Hamas policy as well as the prospects for Palestinian reconciliation and Israeli-Palestinian peace.
On the one hand, Mashal has been rhetorically aggressive toward Israel — unsurprising, given his history with the Jewish state which includes an assassination attempt that was thwarted with the mediation of Jordan’s King Hussein in 1997. Mashal belted out a litany of anti-Israel comments during a speech in Gaza marking the twenty-fifth anniversary of Hamas’ founding, declaring that he would never recognize it as a legitimate entity and that armed resistance was still the most effective way to end what Hamas considers an occupation of Palestinian land. “Palestine is our land and nation from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river, from north to south, and we cannot cede an inch or any part of it,” he said.
Contrary to his often heated remarks, Mashal has also demonstrated pragmatism in recent years. In a 2011 interview with The New York Times, he signaled an interest in a two-state solution, provided Palestinian refugees were allowed to return to their original homes in Israel and pending the establishment of Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital. He reportedly traveled to Jordan earlier this year where he asked King Abdullah II to tell American president Barack Obama that Hamas would be willing to endorse the two state formula. If the report proves to be true, it would exhibit the most extreme concession yet from a movement that is branded as a terrorist organization in much of the world and pledges to destroy the state of Israel in its charter.
Elected to a fifth term, it is less likely that Mashal will try to mend fences with his political rival in the West Bank, Fatah’ Mahmoud Abbas.
The two met in Doha, Qatar in February to set the terms of what would have been an interim national unity government of technocrats, headed by Abbas. The accord, however, got off to a rough start, with some in Hamas concerned that meshing the two forces together and preparing for elections would limit the movement’s power in Gaza. Ismail Haniya’s elevation to the number two spot in the Hamas movement, who is considered to be more skeptical of reconciliation with Abbas, makes reconciliation even harder. But Mashal could use the opportunity generated by his newfound mandate to push an agreement through.
As far as West is concerned, Mashal’s reelection doesn’t make much of a difference. Hamas will still be considered a terrorist organization. Its attempt to unite with Fatah will be met with skepticism, if not apprehension, unless the group accepts Israel’s right to exist, respects existing peace commitments and disarms.
Yet the jostling that has characterized Palestinian politics in recent years may very well change if Mashal, fresh from an election, can convince his colleagues in the Hamas leadership that implementing the unity agreement with Fatah is the surest way to show the world that the Palestinians are a political force that the West needs to take seriously.