In 1997, a team of Mossad hitmen broke into a house in Amman, Jordan, where Khaled Meshal was sleeping. The agents smeared a lethal poison onto the Hamas leader's neck. But when the operation was exposed, Israel's then prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, was forced to provide the antidote. Now, 10 years later, Meshal could face his old nemesis again.
Last week, after an Israeli commission ruled that current Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was guilty of "serious failure[s]" in prosecuting last summer's war in Lebanon, some in Olmert's Kadima Party called for his resignation. According to polls, more than two thirds of Israelis believe Olmert should quit, and a plurality say they would choose the hawkish Netanyahu to replace him. In a rare interview with an American news organization, the Damascus-based Meshal, Hamas's most powerful figure, spoke with NEWSWEEK's Kevin Peraino about the war report and the chances for peace. Excerpts:
PERAINO: What's going through your mind as you watch Olmert try to cling to power?
MESHAL: Israel is suffering from a leadership vacuum, particularly after [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon's absence from the theater. I believe this affirms [what] Olmert and those surrounding him have tried to run away from: the complete failure of [the Lebanon] war.
Israelis worry the outcome of the war has eroded their power to deter enemies like Hamas.
Nobody denies that Israel is militarily and technologically superior. But Israel is no longer capable of controlling the outcome of battles. There are other things like will power, morale, the fairness of the cause and perseverance. These are in our favor.
You recently predicted a new intifada in the Palestinian territories.
It is not a mere prediction; I estimate it will be a reality in the future—if we base our analysis on the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict during the past years, and consider the difficult and escalating conditions on the ground. What does the world expect from the Palestinian people if the current conditions continue, if the economic siege continues, even after we formed the national unity government? Indicators [also suggest] that Israel is preparing for another [act of] aggression during the coming period, either against Lebanon, or in Gaza, or maybe in other theaters in the region.
Does your analysis mean the negotiations over a prisoner exchange for captured Israeli Cpl. Gilad Shalit have come to a halt?
The negotiations haven't stopped. But Israel is stalling and trying to maneuver and resort to last-minute blackmail. This is what delays the deal's completion. We want to release the Israeli prisoner as soon as possible. He is well treated as dictated by our Muslim-Arab morals and the principles of our religion.
What about Alan Johnston, the BBC reporter who has been missing in Gaza for almost two months now? Don't kidnappings of journalists hurt the Palestinian cause?
We are against the kidnapping of journalists and foreigners in general, whether in Palestine or Iraq. We're making efforts to end this situation as soon as possible. I discussed the issue with [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] a few days ago. God willing, we will be able to solve this.
Who do you think is likely to succeed Olmert as prime minister? You might end up with Netanyahu, who once tried to assassinate you, or a former commando like Ehud Barak.
They are all enemies. We have experience with them before. Barak was prime minister, as well as Netanyahu. The Palestinian people do not bet on either of them. We depend on ourselves.
In Washington, there's increasing pressure from some quarters on President Bush to talk with countries like Iran and Syria, and groups like the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas. Considering your dire predictions, could dialogue achieve anything?
We don't object to having dialogues with any country in the international community, including the United States. But we don't beg for such dialogues, because the American administration tries to impose preconditions. We cannot give in to blackmail.
You weren't encouraged at all by the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton report?
Bush ignored the Baker-Hamilton report and the positions and reports of a number of American figures and former officials, such as [former national-security adviser Zbigniew] Brzezinski, [Council on Foreign Relations president] Richard Haass and former U.S. president Carter. Bush continues to adopt the same philosophy: if power does not succeed in achieving the objective, then more power will.
Still, some Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer seem to be making an effort to reach out.
I believe [Pelosi's recent visit to Syria] was a step in the right direction. Wise people in the U.S. should realize that Israel and the fundamentalist American conservative right have both become burdens on the interests and the future of America.
One of the goals of any U.S. dialogue with Syria—whether led by Democrats or Republicans—would likely be to get you kicked out of Damascus. Do you worry the Syrians might expel you in exchange for peace?
The American administration should know that we are confident of the Syrian position, and that any additional pressures on Hamas, inside or outside [the territories], will not be useful. We're not worried about anything.