Is Hamas Ready for Peace With Israel?

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal Khaled al-Hariri / Reuters-Corbis

Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas, turns away in disgust from the big flat-screen television in his heavily guarded office in Damascus. He's been following the news bulletins for weeks, ever since the initial announcement that President Obama had set up face-to-face talks between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The Hamas leader certainly wasn't looking for any breakthroughs from the meetings, and he was scarcely surprised when Netanyahu brushed off Abbas's demand that Israel extend its 10-month freeze on settlement construction in the West Bank. But Meshaal is visibly annoyed by news that an Arab League summit has advised Abbas not to walk out on the negotiations, and instead to accept a one-month recess. "It will not solve the problem," Meshaal complains. "It will just postpone the problem."

Many people would say the Hamas leader himself is an outsize part of the problem. The U.S. government lists Meshaal as a "specially designated global terrorist," and his group's rocket attacks against Israeli civilians in 2008 provoked an invasion that left more than 1,300 Palestinians dead. The Hamas charter, which renounces "initiatives, and so-called peaceful initiatives and international conferences," still calls for Israel's destruction. But the fact is that as peace talks stumble fitfully on, Meshaal desperately wants a place at the table. Hamas already talks to Washington via unofficial channels including former president Jimmy Carter. "But this is not enough," he told NEWSWEEK near the end of a two-hour interview. "The American administration should hear from us directly."

For now, Hamas is taking a much smaller step, seeking to end its conflicts with Abbas's U.S. backed Fatah organization. Representatives of the two groups met in Damascus last month, and another session was scheduled for Oct. 20. As far as Meshaal is concerned, those are the talks that matter now. Hamas has been feuding with Fatah since 2006, when Palestinian voters, fed up with Fatah's longstanding corruption and mismanagement, gave an unexpected victory to his party. An all-out civil war erupted the following summer, leaving Gaza in the hands of the Islamists and the West Bank under Fatah control. The present situation is untenable. "We all understand that national reconciliation is an obligation if we are ever to achieve a free and independent state," says Ahmed Yousef, a senior adviser to the Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniya. "We don't want to be an obstacle."

State Department spokesman P. J. Crowley says Hamas is excluding itself by its refusal to accept Israel's existence and renounce violence. But the fact is that no one is in a hurry to bring Meshaal in. For one thing, U.S. officials don't want to undermine Abbas, the man they view as the Palestinians' most credible peacemaker. More than that, no one wants to reward Hamas's intransigence, a move Abbas would surely see as a betrayal. And his response would be mild compared with Israel's. "Even to suggest an opening to Hamas would blow every fuse in the Israeli political establishment," says an administration official who asked not to be named discussing the politics of a U.S. ally. For that matter, Obama himself is facing enough domestic opposition without talking to terrorists. "The blowback here would be extreme," says Robert Malley, a former member of President Clinton's Mideast peace team now at the International Crisis Group.

Still, Meshaal sounds more moderate these days than he once did. Although he still calls for bigger concessions than Israel is likely to grant, they're at least within the realm of rational discussion. "There is a position and program that all Palestinians share," he tells NEWSWEEK. "To accept a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem as the capital. With the right of return. And this state would have real sovereignty, on the land and on the borders. And with no settlements." This would fall far short of the drastic goals Hamas's charter lays out, but Meshaal says his group would accept such an agreement if a majority of Palestinians approved it: "When this program is implemented…we would respect the will of the Palestinian people." Paul Scham, one of the foremost U.S. experts on Hamas, says he believes that the group's actual views have evolved away from its rabidly anti-Israel charter, and that Hamas is now prepared to act as Fatah's silent partner in talks to achieve Palestinian statehood.

Nevertheless, Abbas is under heavy pressure from U.S. and Israeli officials to keep Hamas isolated. The Fatah leader is disinclined to argue with Washington: America has contributed more than $74 million to the Palestinian Authority this year alone—more than all Arab countries combined. But keeping Hamas isolated gives Meshaal's group every reason to play the spoiler. Fatah on its own could never stop the violence. "It's quite clear that no agreement regarding this conflict can be implemented without the participation of the main Palestinian forces," says Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

Anyone who visits Gaza these days can see why Meshaal's line is softening. The economy is in tatters, and more than one third of the population is unemployed. Alcohol has been struck from restaurant menus, and store windows no longer display women's underwear. In a new poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, 70 percent of respondents said conditions in Gaza are "bad" or "very bad." Some 66 percent said they couldn't criticize the authorities without fear, but even Hamas officials concede that life in Gaza is difficult. "It's still like a big prison, mostly closed on all sides," says Hamas spokesman Ghazi Hamad.

A large share of Gaza's budget arrives as bags of cash, smuggled through tunnels around Egypt's Rafah crossing. Meshaal readily acknowledges that much of that money comes from Iran: "Hamas welcomes any financial support from any party in the world as long as it's unconditional." It's usually less than Gaza needs, anyway. Last month the government deducted roughly $45 from each of the paychecks of some 50,000 civil servants to deal with ongoing electrical shortages. Sometimes things get so bad that Hamas agrees to work with its professed enemy: in the throes of a sewage crisis earlier this year, officials from the Gaza municipality met with Israeli experts for tips on wastewater treatment, according to the London-based Arabic-language newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat.

Meshaal concedes that Hamas's popularity has suffered. Even so, he argues that Gaza's dismal conditions only prove the strength of Hamas's basic support. "Some governments, when they raise the price of bread or gasoline, there is a revolution," he says. "The question should not be the popularity going up or down. The question is how could our 1½ million people put up with four years of siege and still be pro-Hamas?"

For now, Meshaal is biding his time. "Anyone who overlooks Hamas will discover they made a mistake," he says. "Hamas is not all the Palestinians. But Hamas represents a main, important element of the Palestinians." Asked what government position he might one day occupy in a Palestinian state, Meshaal, who was nearly killed by a Mossad assassination attempt in 1997, laughs quietly. "I can't guarantee that I'll be alive then," he says.

With Joanna Chen in Jerusalem and John Barry in Washington