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.