Khaled Meshaal’s reelection as leader of Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, provides a chance for the Islamist group to improve ties with the international community, analysts say.
The veteran leader was chosen Monday to serve another four-year term despite indications he might be forced aside by the movement’s powerful and more radical leadership in Gaza.
Based in exile, the pragmatic politician’s more moderate line on Israel and inter-Palestinian reconciliation has given him wide-ranging support in the Arab world and some sympathy in the West.
“Meshaal’s differences with Hamas’s more radical leadership, and flexibility on issues like reconciliation and peace, presents him to the world as a rational leader whom it is possible to deal with,” said Walid al-Mudallal, a politics professor at Gaza’s Islamic University.
“He excels in… relations with the Arab world,” and his reelection “will give a big enough chance to improve Hamas’s ties with the West and to market it as a movement that isn’t hostile,” he said.
Meshaal’s comments last year that he was willing to “give a chance” to talks with Israel may make him more palatable to the international community, but it sat uncomfortably within a movement whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.
Late last year, Meshaal said he would not seek another term as Hamas chief, but the ongoing upheaval in the Middle East changes in the region forced a rethink.
“Arab and regional changes were the fundamental reason for Meshaal changing his mind about candidacy, and for his victory,” said Mukhaimer Abu Saada, a politics professor at Al-Azhar University in Gaza.
“No one has his political experience,” he added, saying his candidacy was supported by Hamas leaders across the territories as well as externally.
“Hamas faces the challenges of Palestinian reconciliation, confronting Israel, and relations with Egypt. Meshaal is able with his experience to bring Hamas through its difficult challenges.”
Hamas has a long and bitter history of rivalry with the Fatah movement of president Mahmud Abbas which governs the West Bank, is viewed as a terrorist organisation by Israel, and has strained ties with Cairo which suspects Gazan involvement in a deadly attack on troops in Sinai last year.
But with Meshaal at the helm, things could well change, Abu Saada said.
“Two years ago, the international community saw political Islam as a danger and wouldn’t deal with Meshaal. But the Arab revolutions and victory of political Islam mean the US and Europe want to re-examine their thoughts on this.
Through Egypt and Qatar, Hamas has a platform to improve relations with Europe and the United States, he said.
Salah Jumaa, a specialist on Palestinians for Egypt’s MENA news agency, said that “support from Cairo is a gateway to the world” for Hamas.
“The Muslim Brotherhood played a role in Meshaal’s importance to the movement,” he said, referring to Egypt’s ruling Islamist party, from which Hamas stemmed.
“Cairo hosting the Hamas meeting to elect Meshaal is proof that Egypt will support the movement in opening it up to the West.”
Egypt played a central role in brokering reconciliation efforts between Hamas and Fatah which led to the signing of a deal in April 2011, although it has yet to be implemented.
And Qatar has also proposed a mini Arab summit aimed at reconciliation which has been welcomed by both rival movements.
Even for Israel, said Saada, “they will prefer someone they know” in charge of Hamas — even if it is a sworn enemy.
In September 1997, agents of Israel’s Mossad secret service disguised as Canadian tourists bungled an attempt to assassinate him on a street in Amman by injecting him with poison.
But the avowed radical has gradually come around to an implicit acceptance of the notion of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, although the Jewish state has so far reserved judgement.