The first speech yesterday by Khaled Meshal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas' political bureau, since the abduction of Corporal Gilad Shalit was intended mainly to reinforce his leadership position vis-a-vis both Palestinians and Israel. His statements contained little real news. He reiterated the Hamas promise not to hurt Shalit and the position that he would be released only in exchange for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel.
What Meshal did do was to declare that he and not the chairman of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah, or Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza, is the sole spokesman for the Palestinian people in the territories and beyond.
The message was also intended for the ears of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert: Whether you want it or not, I am the only partner you can speak to about the release of prisoners and suspending the Qassam rocket attacks.
At a time when Israel is claiming to have no partner for negotiations, Meshal declared that the road to a future military or diplomatic agreement goes through his Damascus office. (His explicit statements also made him more vulnerable to an Israeli assassination attempt because, in effect, they tied him to the kidnapping.)
Meshal praised Haniyeh, who offered Israel a cease-fire. The offer originated with Meshal, but it apparently was no coincidence that it was voiced by Haniyeh. It made the PA prime minister seem conciliatory while the leader of Hamas abroad was portrayed as a courageous warrior against Israel. The statements made at the press conference in the Syrian capital clearly sought to imitate the derisive tone of Hassan Nasrallah, but Meshal lacks the fire and the charisma of the Hezbollah leader.
Meshal did call Olmert "a small Sharon," but he has yet to free himself of his own nickname among the Palestinians, "little Arafat." Like Arafat during the 1980s, Meshal is trying from his place of exile to render the leadership of his organization in the territories meaningless. And like Arafat, Meshal is finding it hard to shed his revolutionary instincts.
"The brothers on the ground will decide the soldier's fate," he claimed, as if he had not laid claim to setting all of the rules of the game himself just a moment ago. Meshal spoke of "terror" as the Palestinian nation's strategic choice in its "resistance," despite the fact that his own men have been making considerable efforts over the past several days to send the Israeli public the message that Meshal is interested in a comprehensive diplomatic solution and not just a cease-fire.
Meshal emphasized his independence from Damascus and Tehran, but immediately thereafter heaped praise and thanks on Syrian President Bashar Assad.
"I yearn for my God and am not afraid of death," Meshal boasted. The tight security procedures before the press conference said otherwise.
The speech revealed a leader who is also facing criticism from within. ("All those who say the Qassams have no effect do not understand reality.") In the face of growing Israeli military pressure and the increasingly thinning ranks of Qassam launch personnel, Meshal tried to set Israeli public opinion against Olmert.
Despite this, Meshal has drawn his red lines. He wants a prisoner release because any other deal would jeopardize his growing leadership. It appears that in the end, he will have to settle for a delayed release, in which Israel can deny a link between Stage 1 (Shalit's release) and Stage 2 (the release of Palestinian prisoners), and Hamas can claim the opposite.
As long as Israel's military operation in Gaza goes smoothly, however, the government can be satisfied - no negotiations and no prisoner release despite Hamas' reduction of its demands, from 1,500 prisoners down to 130.
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