Talking to Hamas
The group's exiled leader on Syria, Palestinian politics, and Vanity Fair.
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.
Deborah Amos is a correspondent for NPR. She reports from the Middle East.
Photograph of Khalid Mishaal by Abd Raouf/AP Photo.