JERUSALEM // Khaled Meshaal, the head of the Hamas Political Bureau, might be asked to stay in his post despite his recent decision not to stand for re-election, a spokesman for the group said yesterday.
Mr Meshaal's announcement in January that he would withdraw his name from consideration for re-election to the Islamist movement's highest post stunned observers and sparked speculation that his authority over the group had weakened because of internal opposition to the Arab Spring-inspired reforms he championed.
But members of Hamas's legislative body, the Shura Council, were considering whether to request that Mr Meshaal stay put, said the spokesman, Fawzi Barhoum.
"It is not up to Mr Meshaal to make this decision alone, and it must be agreed on by the Shura leaders before anything can happen," he said by telephone from the Gaza Strip.
Until last year, Mr Meshaal was Hamas' preeminent leader, owing mainly to his control over fund-raising and, therefore, his ability to orchestrate attacks by the group's military wing, the Izz ad Din aq Qassam Brigades.
But the closing last year of the Hamas headquarters in Damascus shifted the focus of power from Syria to the Gaza Strip, the movement's stronghold, and thrown Mr Meshaal's status inside Hamas into confusion. It also has embroiled the movement in an identity crisis.
Citing Hamas' policy of secrecy on internal deliberations, Mr Barhoum declined to offer details on the proposed offer to Mr Meshaal. He also refused to comment on a report published yesterday that the Hamas leader had lost control of the group's finances and the Izz ad Din aq Qassam Brigades to the group's leadership in Gaza.
The report in Israel's Haaretz newspaper, which cited unnamed Hamas sources, said Mr Meshaal had moved to Doha, while his deputy and rival, Moussa Abou Marzouk, had relocated to Cairo.
Other rivals, such as Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas prime minister, and Mahmoud Zahar have criticised recent changes promoted by Mr Meshaal that included toning down the group's stance towards Israel and reconciling with the Fatah faction.
Last month, the newspaper reported that a number of Hamas figures in the Gaza Strip had prevailed in secret elections, including Mr Haniyeh, who was chosen the leader of the local political bureau.
Hamas also is supposed to hold local elections in the West Bank, as well as for the party-wide Shura Council. In turn, the council is to select members of the group's executive body, the political bureau, and Hamas's overall leader.
Since the election process is not complete, Nathan Thrall, a Jerusalem-based analyst for the International Crisis Group, called reports on Mr Meshaal's fading influence "premature". He also questioned reports that Mr Haniyeh's success in local elections translated into a loss of influence for Mr Meshaal.
"It has been widely reported that Haniyeh, who has been at the forefront of the Gaza leadership's tensions with Meshaal, is the head of the new Gaza political bureau. But Haniyeh was no less senior a figure in Gaza before these elections," Mr Thrall said.
However, Shlomo Brom, a research fellow at the Tel Aviv-based Institute for National Security Studies, said Hamas leaders in Gaza appeared to be gaining more authority over matters. But the seizure of power in the Gaza Strip by Hamas in 2007 increased tensions with the outside leadership. With the upheavals of the Arab Spring, Gaza's Hamas leaders became relatively more hardline, Mr Brom said.
"The two leaderships essentially flipped, and the leadership that was based in Damascus became a lot more moderate," he said.
Daoud Kuttab, an independent analyst who lives in Jerusalem and Amman said Hamas' funding from Iran had decreased substantially over the last year, helping weaken Mr Meshaal's control over the Qassam Brigades and leaders in Gaza.
"When Meshaal was in Syria, he was in a much stronger position. But now, he doesn't have a physical base," he said.