x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Meshaal's move raises doubt on Palestinian unity

Khaled Meshaal's decision not to stand for re-election comes at a critical time for Hamas as it re-evaluates its relations with sponsors Syria and Iran. And the single greatest issue is the reconciliation process with Fatah.

Three months after securing a historic prisoner-exchange deal with Israel, Hamas's political leader Khaled Meshaal has said that he will not stand for re-election this summer. The decision comes at a critical time for Hamas as it re-evaluates its relations with sponsors Syria and Iran. And the single greatest issue is the reconciliation process with Fatah.

It is in this respect that Mr Meshaal's decision will be judged. With a reputation as a hardliner with strong ties to Damascus and Tehran, Mr Meshaal has in recent months led reconciliation efforts, and appeared to moderate his position on a two-state solution alongside Israel.

There had been speculation that Hamas leaders in Gaza, opposed to that more tempered stance, might object to Mr Meshaal's re-election. At this point, there are unanswered questions about whether Mr Meshaal's decision is binding, or just a minor episode in the movement's internal politics. How will the project of Palestinian unity be affected? Will relations with Damascus and Tehran change, and will Palestinians in Gaza have a greater voice in decisions?

There is an opportunity for other Hamas members in Gaza to show their mettle, although in recent months Mr Meshaal has helped to steer Hamas in the right direction. Once a critic of Fatah, Mr Meshaal has recently spoken of a Palestine "larger and more important than Gaza" and said "Palestinian people are larger than Hamas". He has also indicated the possibility of recognising Israel in exchange for an independent Palestinian state, itself a major shift in Hamas politics.

This evolved vision for the movement has been opposed by many leaders in the Gaza Strip, and may have led to Mr Meshaal's decision to step down. On the one hand, political debate and leadership change within Hamas is natural, even healthy. But it would be to the detriment of Palestinians in general if this newfound pragmatic approach is the casualty.

Palestinian unity remains the critical first step to move forward. Arab states are less likely to support a fractured Palestinian Authority, and an increasingly aggressive Israeli occupation has always manipulated divisions among Palestinians to its own advantage.

If Mr Meshaal's departure means less influence by Damascus and Tehran, and empowers Palestinians on the ground within the Gaza Strip, so much the better. But they would be wise to heed his words that Palestine is indeed larger than just Hamas or Gaza.

Domestic politics have yet to run their course. Regardless, while Mr Meshaal remains in office he would do well to bring his faction closer to the Palestinian Authority. And we can hope that his successors are equally pragmatic.