Eight-day war breathes new life into Hamas leader's political career


Khaled Meshaal narrowly survived an assassination attempt ordered by Binyamin Netanyahu in 1997 the first time he was Israeli prime minister. Fifteen years on, the Hamas leader claims to have defeated Netanyahu once again.

The eight-day war between Israel and Palestinians – a Hamas victory in Meshaal’s eyes – has breathed new life into his political career just as he seemed poised to leave his post. Meshaal indicated earlier this year he did not want to continue as Hamas leader.

Meshaal (56) took over as Hamas leader following the 2004 assassinations of Abdel-Aziz Al-Rantissi and Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the movement’s founder. This week, his political stock climbed sharply as he led the Palestinian team negotiating a ceasefire under Egyptian mediation. The deal is viewed as a success by Palestinians.

“It is a tactical defeat – one stage along the road of defeats,” an upbeat Meshaal said on Wednesday. “We have come out of this battle with our heads up high.”

“The stature he has gained in the last few days will allow him to continue to play a political role,” said George Giacaman, a professor of political science at Birzeit University in the West Bank. “If he is not in a specific office, he will occupy the role of a senior statesman.”

On Meshaal’s watch, Hamas has emerged as an ever more important player in the Middle East conflict. It weakened the US-backed Palestinian Authority by seizing control of Gaza in 2007, challenging its strategy of negotiating peace with Israel and promoting an alternative approach based on armed struggle. He does not accept the idea of a permanent peace deal with Israel but has said Hamas could accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem as a temporary solution in return for a long-term truce.

Friction between him and the Gaza-based leadership surfaced over his attempts to promote reconciliation with President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads the Palestinian Authority. Irritating Hamas leaders in Gaza, Meshaal agreed that Abbas could lead any future unity government designed to bring together the rival Palestinian administrations.

Abbas is also head of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, which was founded in 1964 to group Palestinian factions. Hamas has never joined the PLO, saying it must be overhauled. Meshaal has used his public addresses to urge for moves towards reconciliation, including reform of the PLO and moves towards forging a shared strategy for pursuing the Palestinian cause.