Anne Barnard
The New York Times
November 28, 2012 - 1:00am

BEIRUT, Lebanon — On the eve of the United Nations vote on whether to declare the Palestinian Authority a nonmember state, the leader of Hamas revived a long-percolating proposal for his militant party to join the Palestine Liberation Organization, the group that, with Israel, signed the Oslo Accord, which Hamas has long derided.

Speaking at an academic conference here by video link from his new base in Doha, Qatar, the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, called on Wednesday for the politically divided Palestinians to unite through new P.L.O. elections that would rebuild the organization “on a correct basis that includes all Palestinian forces.”

There are rumored discussions about giving Mr. Meshal a leadership role in the P.L.O., either through an appointment by the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, or through a vote by a P.L.O. body called the Palestine Central Council, said a political analyst close to the P.L.O. and the ruling Palestinian Fatah party. The move could help heal the bitter political split between Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, the party that controls the P.L.O. and the West Bank.

By taking an influential role in the P.L.O., Hamas could follow allied Islamist movements that have come to power through elections in the wake of the Arab uprisings in early 2011, gaining legitimacy and assuming what it considers its rightful place in Palestinian politics.

Yet joining the P.L.O. is a difficult issue for Hamas, which pioneered suicide bombings against Israel, and for Mr. Meshal’s Islamist base of support throughout the Arab world. In his remarks, he was careful to insist that Hamas was not abandoning its uncompromising stance.

“Hamas will always be with the resistance,” he said. “Resistance is not a hotel that we can check into and out of.”

But Mr. Meshal faced skeptics at the conference, which was organized by the Al-Zaytouna Center for Studies and Consultations in Beirut. The meeting focused on empowering the movement against Israeli occupation after the collapse of pro-Western dictatorships in the region, and some presenters criticized Mr. Meshal for abandoning the cause just as it was gathering strength.

“You can be for the resistance or against the resistance,” said Talal Atrissi, a Lebanese political scientist who is close to the Lebanese Islamist party Hezbollah, an ally of Iran.

He said that by joining the P.L.O., Mr. Meshal would be accepting its goal of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, which is at odds with Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel. 

“They just don’t go together; it’s impossible,” Mr. Atrissi said, rolling his eyes as he noted that Mr. Meshal spoke against the backdrop of the Doha skyline in Qatar, a country that many in Hamas view as an errand runner for the West.

Hamas is flush over what it is billing as a victory for its armed resistance against Israel, after fighting in Gaza last week ended with a cease-fire and promises to remove some Israeli restrictions that have devastated the coastal strip’s economy. Mr. Meshal’s remarks suggested that he believed Hamas now held more cards to influence the P.L.O., and the wider Arab world, to take a tougher stance in dealings with Israel.

Although the desire to join the P.L.O. could be viewed as moderating Hamas’s position, Mr. Meshal also called on the Arab world to take a tougher stance against the West and Israel. That would more accurately reflect the wishes of populations newly empowered by the Arab Spring, he said, especially in Egypt, one of two Arab countries that have signed peace treaties with Israel.

He called the treaties “a very heavy inheritance,” and said that Arab countries should support Palestinians if not with “actual wars” then by preserving “the golden option of resistance.”

The position and language of Arab governments toward Israel and the West after the uprisings “cannot be the same,” Mr. Meshal said. “We need an Arab strategy,” he added, saying it was time for the Arab nation — he used the word ummah, indicating the Muslim community — to “come back” after a long absence on the world stage.

At the same time that Mr. Meshal was reaching out to liberal and Christian Palestinians and to Fatah, he also seemed to be trying to justify himself to his base and more radical rivals. Some have criticized him for not opposing Mr. Abbas’s appeal to the United Nations for nonmember status for a Palestine based on the 1967 borders, anathema to those who want a state that includes what is now Israel.

He explicitly addressed those who complained that he was being too accommodating by agreeing to the Gaza cease-fire and in refraining from attacks on Israeli positions in the West Bank, restraint he said was necessary for the security of Palestinians there.

“To those who view the cease-fire with suspicion,” he said, “we will be committed to the path of resistance until we liberate Palestine. But escalation and calm, this is a management decision.”

In principle, Hamas still opposes the 1993 Oslo Accord that created the Palestinian Authority to govern the territories, he said, but found it necessary to “join our role in resistance to our role in the Authority, to serve the best interests of the citizens.”

Long before its Muslim Brotherhood allies took power in Egypt and Tunisia, Hamas entered politics by running in, and winning, elections in the Palestinian territories in 2006. But it was unable to govern in the face of Western opposition and in 2007 took power in the Gaza Strip by force, deepening the political split.

Mr. Meshal said that pragmatic decisions sometimes advanced Palestinian interests.

“Resistance is a path and not a goal,” he said. “We are not fighting the Jews because they are Jews; we are fighting the Zionists, the Jews that are colonists, and we shall fight all those who oppress and plunder our land, regardless their religion, regardless of their race.”

He implied that Hamas would not settle for a symbolic role in the P.L.O. but would seek to toughen its policies. Elections would be meaningless if some parties remained “bystanders.”

He said Hamas insisted on “liberation first, then a state,” because a state based on “compromise or settlement is not a real state.”


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