With pundits in most capitals already predicting failure for the US-brokered Palestinian-Israeli peace talks to begin on Thursday, it seems only natural to start asking the question: “What’s next?”
To get a jumpstart on what surely will be an onslaught of new, competing narratives vying for prominence in the post-peace process era, I headed to Damascus to talk to a man who has predicted the failure of this process from the start. And yet who — against all logic — has never been invited to sit at the negotiating table.
Khaled Meshaal, head of Hamas’ political bureau, is an unassuming man who sauntered into our interview room unattended and chatted with me in English while we awaited his staff.
The young father of seven — three daughters and four sons, in that order — is grounded, smart and energetic. We met at 1:00 a.m. when I was fading fast, and he was just getting started. There was a lot of ground to cover, but more than anything I wanted to leave the interview knowing what Hamas stood for. The resistance group, I felt, had left people confused in recent years. By moderating their stances and altering their language to accommodate changing realities in the Middle East, Hamas had become a bit blurry at the edges.
Do they recognize a two-state solution? Do they reject the peace process outright? What do they think about the role and imperatives of the international community in resolving the longstanding conflict between Palestinians and Israelis?
And most importantly for me — how does one today define an organization that has evolved so much since its inception?
- Firstly, Hamas is clearly a national liberation movement that has at it roots a “resistance” outlook. It’s focus is the liberation of Palestine from Israeli occupation, and the group’s Islamist character complements rather than competes with Hamas’ political objectives.
- Secondly, Hamas’ resistance of occupation is at the heart of its strategies — be they efforts to reach out and engage, or to take up arms. The strategy may change with evolving regional and global realities, but the group’s objectives stand firm.
In a nutshell: While the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority enables Israel to enjoy a pressure-free occupation, Hamas ensures that Israel’s occupation remains always under pressure.
And so we come to this last leg of the US-brokered peace process. Ostensibly, under the internationally-sanctioned land-for-peace formula, a major goal of negotiations is to end Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands. So why then would Hamas not stand fully behind a peace process that sought to accomplish some of its very own goals? And why too would US mediators not invite the participation of a group that won the Palestinian popular vote in their last elections?
Here is what Khaled Meshaal had to say about the prospects and challenges of peace, and where we find ourselves at this moment, on the eve of direct peace talks:
SN: The peace process has been going on for 19 years — what in your view has been the major reason for its failure thus far?
KM: Three reasons. First of all, Israel does not want peace. They talk about peace but they are not ready to pay the price of peace. The second reason is that the Palestinian negotiator does not have strong cards in his hand to push the peace process forward. The third reason is that the international community does not have the capability or the desire to push Israel towards peace.