Media Mention of Hussein Ibish in The National - January 30, 2012 - 1:00am

JERUSALEM // The leaders of Hamas have never been known for globetrotting or an appetite for diplomatic fanfare.

They were confined to the Gaza Strip, unable to leave because of the Israeli blockade of the coastal enclave. Or, if they were among the clutch of senior Hamas officials based in Damascus, they maintained a low profile to avoid testing the patience and straining the hospitality of their Syrian hosts.

Those days are gone.

Yesterday, Khaled Meshaal travelled to Amman for talks with Jordanian officials, including King Abdullah II - the first official visit by the Damascus-based leader since the group was kicked out of Jordan a decade ago. In a show of support, Mr Meshaal, the outgoing chairman of the movement's political bureau, was accompanied by Qatar's crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.

Amjad Adayleh, an adviser to Jordan's royal court, described the meeting between Mr Meshaal and the Jordanian king as "positive" and said it had opened "a new page" in relations between the kingdom and the Islamist movement.

The Hamas roadshow continues today, when Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas's prime minister in Gaza, departs for a regional tour that will take him first to Cairo then to Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and Iran. Earlier this month, he toured Sudan, Turkey and Tunisia.

The outreach by Mr Meshaal and Mr Haniyeh are anything but expressions of confidence about the movement's direction. Indeed, analysts said, they highlighted the uncertainty and discord unsettling the movement as Islamist parties and movements emerge as powerful political players in the Arab Spring era and its political ties with its longtime allies, Syria and Iran, appear to be under strain - if not, in the case of Damascus - crumbling altogether.

"Hamas is not yet sure whether the Arab uprisings and changing regional alignments are a huge challenge, an opportunity, or both," said Hussein Ibish, a senior fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine - a research organisation in Washington, DC.

The emboldened Muslim Brotherhood-linked movements and parties in Egypt and Tunisia are believed to have offered political support to Hamas. In exchange, they hope to moderate the group's polices and pull it away from the Damascus-Tehran axis, according to analysts.

The latter opportunity would seem to be ripe. Sources, speaking on condition of anonymity. have told The National that the group is searching for a new location for its headquarters because of the crackdown on pro-reform demonstrators by the regime of President Bashar Al Assad.

Hamas has reportedly refused to back the Syrian government's crackdown, angering both Mr Al Assad and his chief ally, Iran.

So far, however, Hamas was playing a game of wait-and-see, said Mr Ibish, who described the foreign travels of its leaders as a bid to "explore options".

But ultimately, he added: "It is clear they are going to have to pay a price" in terms of either abandoning the platform of armed resistance in favour of the peaceful nature of the Arab Spring or rely on a Syria-Iran alliance that would likely perpetuate the group's pariah status with western countries and their regional allies.

In the current tumult sweeping the region, Hamas's leadership in exile appears to be paying a heavier price than officials in Gaza, which the group controls. Mr Meshaal has abandoned his base in Syria, Reuters reported on Friday, citing diplomatic and intelligence sources.

Furthermore, his decision this month not stand for re-election as chairman of Hamas' political bureau had escalated the power struggle between officials in Gaza and Damascus, said Ahmad Moussalli, a professor of Islamic studies at the American University of Beirut.

Officials in Gaza, such as Mr Haniyeh, have opposed Mr Meshaal's tentative embrace of non-violent resistance and willingness to tacitly recognise Israel by accepting a Palestinian state living beside it.

Moreover, they have criticised the May reconciliation accord he brokered with the group's rival Palestinian faction, Fatah, chaired by the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

"The visits of Meshaal to Jordan and Haniyeh to Iran symbolise competing visions within the group, and this [the visits] seems to be solidifying these differences as well," said Mr Moussalli, adding that the Islamic republic hoped to replace Mr Meshaal with Mr Haniyeh.

He and other analysts said countries such as Jordan, Qatar and Egypt feared Mr Meshaal's successor could take a hard-line stance towards the peace process and Palestinian reconciliation. His Jordan trip was being used by King Abdullah and Qatar to steer Hamas away from Iran and Syria, they said.

Amman, in particular, considers Mr Meshaal an "essential" leader because he "is been supportive of [Mahmoud] Abbas's agenda," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, founder of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs. He was referring to the Palestinian Authority president's agreement to engage in informal peace discussions with Israel in the Jordanian capital, which began on January 3.

"Hamas is concerned about Jordan's security, stability and its interests," Mr Meshaal said in a statement released by the royal court. "We respect the boundaries and the limits set by both parties."

He said that Hamas strongly opposed settlement plans and the alternative homeland.

Mr Meshaal also insisted that Palestinians obtain their full rights in a manner where Palestine is for the Palestinians and Jordan for the Jordanians.

Jordan had effectively replaced Egypt as the primary regional actor pushing Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations - the reason, said Mr Abdul Hadi, that King Abdullah wanted to bolster Mr Meshaal's standing. Jordan and Egypt have peace treaties with Israel.

"This is a reflection of a new emphasis in Jordanian policy and national-security interests, which is the creation of a Palestinian state," Mr Abdul Hadi said.

Jordan has hosted five informal meetings between Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian negotiator, and his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Molcho.


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