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.
SN: On Thursday, direct talks begin again between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel -- the US has worked hard to bring this about. What are your thoughts on this round, the US' role and prospects for a breakthrough?
KM: These negotiations are taking place for American and Israeli considerations, calculations and interests only. There are no interests at all for us as Palestinians or Arabs. That's why the negotiations can only be conducted under American orders, threats and pressure exerted on the PA and some Arab countries.
The negotiations are neither supported nationally nor are they perceived as legitimate by the authoritative Palestinian institutions. They are rejected by most of the Palestinian factions, powers, personalities, elites, and regular people -- that is why these "peace talks" are destined for failure.
This represents a perfect example of how the US administration deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict -- how American policy appears to be based on temporary troubleshooting instead of working toward finding a real and lasting solution.
Consecutive US administrations have adopted this same policy of "managing conflict" instead of "resolving conflict." This can be useful for American tactical and short-term purposes, but it is very dangerous on the long-term and the strategic levels. This approach will ultimately prove catastrophic for the region.
SN: There is debate about whether Hamas accepts the premise of a two-state solution -- your language seems often vague and heavily nuanced. I want to ask if you could clarify, but I am also curious as to whether it is even worth accepting a two-state solution today when there has been so much land confiscation and settlement activity by Israel in the West Bank and East Jerusalem?
KM: Hamas does accept a Palestinian state on the lines of 1967 -- and does not accept the two-state solution.
SN: What is the difference between the two?
KM: There is big difference between these two. I am a Palestinian. I am a Palestinian leader. I am concerned with accomplishing what the Palestinian people are looking for -- which is to get rid of the occupation, attain liberation and freedom, and establish the Palestinian state on the lines of 1967. Talking about Israel is not relevant to me -- I am not concerned about it. It is an occupying state, and I am the victim. I am the victim of the occupation; I am not concerned with giving legitimacy to this occupying country. The international community can deal with this (Israeli) state; I am concerned with the Palestinian people. I am as a Palestinian concerned with establishing the Palestinian state only.
SN: Can you clarify further? As a Palestinian leader of the Resistance you have to give people an idea of what you aspire to -- and how you expect to attain it?
KM: For us, the 20 years of experience with these peace negotiations -- and the failure of it -- very much convinces us today that the legitimate rights of Palestinians will be only be gained by snatching them, not by being gifted with them at the negotiating table. Neither Netanyahu nor any other Israeli leader will ever simply gift us a Palestinian state. The Palestinian Authority has watered down all its demands and is merely asking for a frame of reference to the 1967 borders in negotiations, but Netanyahu has repeatedly refused to accept even this most basic premise for peace. Nor will America or the international community gift us with a state -- we have to depend on ourselves and help ourselves.
As a Palestinian leader, I tell my people that the Palestinian state and Palestinian rights will not be accomplished through this peace process -- but it will be accomplished by force, and it will be accomplished by resistance. I tell them that through this bitter experience of long negotiations with the Israelis, we got nothing -- we could not even get the 1967 solution. I tell them the only option in front of us today is to take this by force and by resistance. And the Palestinian people today realize this -- yes, it has a steep price, but there is no other option for the Palestinian people. The Palestinian people tried the peace process option but the result was nothing.
SN: While Hamas has not been a participant in the peace process, many of the Arab nations have pushed for these very negotiations. So then why have they persisted with these talks if most of them think the process is fruitless?
KM: This bloc (of Arab nations) which has pursued the peace process strategy with Israel is ready to continue with habitual and continuous negotiations without even a single outcome. They will continue with this peace process with Israel because they are not ready to turn to the other option.
SN: And the other option is?
KM: The confrontation of Israel. The other option is resistance -- which will gain the strong cards to pressurize Israel. In short, a weak party (this Arab bloc) will adopt a course of action though he knows that he will see no positive outcome, as he does not have his own strength and has no strong cards. At the same time there is also a great pressure on The Resistance from America and Israel in order to prevent our success. If the peace process is blocked without hope, there is no option for the Palestinian people -- for the people of the region -- but the option of continuing with resistance, even though they realize the pressure that will come, and even though they realize there is a conspiracy against The Resistance.
SN: Well one of these Arab nations that keeps pushing for the peace process is Egypt. Egypt is also a party to the siege of Gaza. And yet Hamas accepts the decision of the Arab League to choose Egypt to mediate reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. Why did Hamas accept Egypt as a mediator?
KM: There is no doubt we have differences with Egypt regarding many of its political positions and decisions. But the reasons for Egypt's mediation reconciliation talks are different. The first is that Egypt is a major country in the region -- it is not easy for other nations to just bypass them on any issue. The second reason goes back to geopolitics and the history between Palestine and Egypt, which make Egypt more vested in the Palestinian issue than virtually any other country.
The third reason is that the reconciliation itself consists of two parties -- Hamas and Fatah. No mediator in this reconciliation effort will succeed unless both groups agree to their participation. Fatah simply refuses the intervention of any other Arab country as this will anger Egypt. We in Hamas do not refuse Egypt as the caretaker for the mediation -- what is important for us is not whether we have X or Y as the mediator, what is important to us is that reconciliation itself has to be advanced in a correct way. And it was evident in the last round that the main impediment to this reconciliation is American interference.
SN: But then does reconciliation become impossible if Egyptians always cave to US pressure?
KM: Yes, there is an American pressure where Egypt is concerned. Mahmoud Abbas is also acquiescing to that same pressure and this undoubtedly makes the reconciliation more difficult.
SN: Why, in your view, does the West not engage directly with Hamas and make you a partner to the solution? Surely the only path to a comprehensive peace is a solution agreed upon by all major parties to a conflict?
KM: The West is trying -- either because it lacks the capability or desire -- to get somewhere in the region through pressuring the Palestinian side, and not pressuring the Israeli side. The Americans are still convinced today that if they continue pressuring the Palestinian and Arab negotiators -- and not get Israel angry -- they can reach some breakthrough through this process. The time is coming when they will reach a dead-end because the Palestinian people will simply not agree to any solution which will not provide for all their legitimate rights.
SN: Well some Palestinians would. It appears that the Palestinian Authority is prepared to strike a deal that does not address the Palestinian refugees' right of return. But could that be a real solution?
KM: I am talking about a majority of Palestinians -- not the few. The Palestinian Authority cannot reach a solution with the Israelis without the approval of the majority. Any rightful representatives of the people will advocate for, and not disregard, the Palestinian people's ambitions and legitimate rights. In short, the West will discover sooner or later that any solution that will not fulfill the rights of the Palestinian people will not be successful and will not be implemented. In that very particular instance, when they finally decide to respect the desires and ambitions of the Palestinian people, they will decide to engage with the Hamas movement.
To clarify... though we are open to them, the key for the success of any solution is not through the West or the Americans -- we believe that the key to success will come through pursuing our national rights. The change will be made from within the region -- whether America is satisfied or not -- because anyone who is awaiting change from the West today will not get any change.
SN: There are rumors that Hamas has been secretly talking to US officials for about two years -- is there any truth to this?
KM: We don't have any interest in concealing official meetings if they take place. Essentially speaking, there are no official or direct talks with the US administration, except for some meetings that happened at the side of some conference in Doha with low-profile individuals, and we do not consider these direct or official talks with the administration.
But we do consider some of these meetings as indirect talks -- we know very well that some non-US officials we meet with report to the administration. And yes, we have met some former Democrat and Republican officials, and we know that they too report to the administration. We are interested in meeting with the Americans and the West, but we do not beg for these meetings and we are not in a hurry.
In Part 2 of the interview, to be published shortly, Meshaal will talk about the shifting priorities of a "new" Middle East, the "Resistance Bloc," Netanyahu, Iran -- and answers a curious personal question from an unnamed CENTCOM official.
Follow Sharmine Narwani on Twitter: www.twitter.com/snarwani