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Meshaal returns to take a firmer hold on Hamas

The return of Khaled Meshaal, strengthened by the short-term withdrawal of his candidacy, is good news for Hamas, the Palestinians, and the hope of peace.

Khaled Meshaal, the leader of Hamas's political bureau, has reversed his decision to step down. Whether this is a genuine change of heart or the springing of a slick political trap, it is best understood as good news for the Palestinians and the cause of peace.

Mr Meshaal, who has led Hamas's political wing since 1996, said in January that he would not seek re-election this year. The announcement was greeted with shock by Hamas members and by analysts, who concluded that Mr Meshaal's personal authority had been so reduced by his efforts at reform - including a new emphasis on unarmed struggle against Israel - that he was ready to give up.

Now, however, his move looks more like a way of sidelining internal opponents by making Hamas reflect on its relative weakness without him.

Mr Meshaal has proved himself a smart political operator in the difficult context of the Arab uprisings. He deftly moved Hamas's offices from Syria as that country descended into violence, and refused to endorse Bashar Al Assad. He tried to solidify links with Islamist organisations in Egypt and Tunisia, and moved the political office of Hamas to Qatar.

More importantly - and controversially - for Palestinians, Mr Meshaal has tried to mend the rift between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which runs the Gaza Strip.

A unified Palestinian political voice is essential to any hope of reviving the moribund peace process; indeed the Hamas-Fatah discord has allowed Israel to argue that there is no unified Palestinian authority with which to negotiate.

A reconciled Hamas and Fatah would remove that excuse; indeed considering Israel's intransigence in recent years, Palestinian unity would expose Israel as the side least interested in meaningful negotiation.

But moving in that direction demands great courage from anyone aspiring to lead, or keep leading, Hamas. Powerful factions in Gaza have a profitable interest in the status quo.

Mr Meshaal's move promises to make him more secure in office, which would be a positive step toward the ultimate negotiated solution with Israel which is the only tolerable one.

Palestinian politics is always played in the shadow of regional political trends, and Israel's arrogance and bullying persistently poison the well of peace.

But Mr Meshaal has shown himself to have the right instincts in a rapidly changing region, and as things are Hamas - and the Palestinian people - stand to benefit from his return.

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