Analysis / The Day of the Meshal

Khaled Meshal must finally feel fulfilled. After years of struggling for a place in the top ranks in the Hamas, after beating out Moussa Abu Marzook for leadership of the organization's political bureau, after overcoming the scorn of Ahmed Yassin (Hamas's founder), who referred to him as "that kid," after surviving an attack by the Mossad in Amman - he has finally achieved recognition by Israel. He is no longer a mere wanted man, nor even the head of a gang, but the person who controls all violence in the territories.

Meshal himself could not have hoped for such an exalted standing. Because the "field" and Meshal are far from identical. In the "field," there are cells, gangs, organizations and movements whose shared constant is the mobility among them. For example, Jamal Abu Samhadana, the commander of one of the Popular Resistance Committees who was killed in an Israeli strike earlier this month, belonged to Fatah. Another committee was led until recently by Mumtaz Daramshe, who belonged to Hamas until a dispute with another commander led him to set up his own group, now known as Jish al-Islam (Army of Islam). Movement at the top of these groups is always accompanied by the movement of fighters loyal to that commander. This loyalty does not always depend on group ideology; it often relies on friendship, a shared past in the neighborhood or even origins in the same village, now in Israel. But their most important common link is money, and that determines loyalty.

Khaled Meshal has no inside information about this organizational mobility, nor does he know of every attack or every plot. Some of the commanders in the field do not recognize Meshal or the heads of any other organization as their leader. Those who disobey Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh do not necessarily obey Meshal. Thus, for example, even local political initiatives such as the prisoners' document are carried out against Meshal's will.

Meshal gave his consent to the hudna (temporary cease-fire) only after he became concerned that he might lose his leadership position in the territories. The open hostility between Meshal and Haniyeh came to the fore when the prime minister threatened to resign in April unless Meshal retracted his vociferous statements against Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas.

Meshal, born in 1956, holds a B.A. in physics from the University of Kuwait. Until the 1990 Gulf War, he resided in Kuwait, where he moved from Silwad, near Ramallah, after Israel conquered the territories in 1967. When Kuwait deported the Palestinians after the Gulf war, due to their support for Iraq's invasion, Meshal and his family moved to Jordan. The attempt on his life by the Mossad in 1997, which led to Ahmed Yassin's release from prison, put Meshal on the map. In 2000, he was deported from Jordan along with four other Hamas leaders, and he now moves around between Syria, Lebanon and Iran.

For a long while, Egypt also refused to have any connection with him, and now it hesitates to negotiate with him. Normally, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman meets with Meshal. They spoke this week, while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak talked with Syrian President Bashar Assad. Meshal maintains that he had nothing to do with the kidnapping of Corporal Gilad Shalit.

In the past, the Hamas had no problem claiming responsibility, so it may be that Meshal is telling the truth. Mubarak informed Ehud Olmert of what he heard from Assad, and the next day, Israeli jets buzzed Assad's residence in Latakia. Egypt was furious: Not only were the Egyptians asked to convince Assad to pressure Meshal, but Israel was also directly threatening Assad. Such behavior threatens Egypt's credibility as an interlocutor.

Israel's saber-rattling has also benefited Assad in talks with Lebanon about their bilateral relationship. Talk of Israel's aggression took center stage, and Hezbollah is pleased, because no one is talking now about the need to disarm it.