Arm-wrestling Within Hamas

What moved Khaled Meshal to hold a press conference yesterday, of all days, without saying anything new? Last week his deputy, Musa Abu Marzuk, told Al-Hayat newspaper that "there is not one Palestinian who wants to free the abducted soldier without ... the release of Palestinian prisoners." Meshal's statement yesterday was almost identical.

The answer is that after the recent flood of statements, Meshal wanted to make it very clear that he was Hamas' sole political architect. Such public displays usually take place after the failure of secret negotiations or when someone wants to take credit for an expected success.

Meshal's statement covered both options. As long as Israel does not announce its readiness to release Palestinian prisoners in an exchange, Meshal's statement precludes an initiative, by Mahmoud Abbas or by Ismail Haniyeh, to violate the boundaries of Palestinian consensus as he designated them. But if Israel does decide to release prisoners, Meshal can take sole credit for the political victory since he publicly set the rules for the exchange.

In effect, even if Abbas and Haniyeh obtain a direct or indirect agreement with Israel, the result will in any event appear to have been dictated by Meshal and will count as a concession by Israel.

There is another reason for Meshal's most recent statement. Meshal is apparently guided by the fear that the Hamas leadership in the territories could take initiative, with regard to the terms for Shalit's release, and deprive him of control over the political event. Such initiative could be the result of the Hamas government's concern about the damage done to its rule by prolonging the kidnapping affair.

This theory is supported by the fact that in the two weeks that Abbas spent in the Gaza Strip, he managed to create a political liaison body with Hamas, which hammered out the final details of the new and improved prisoners' document in preparation of its implementation. Abbas who left for Damascus on Sunday is supposed to present the final draft of this national document to Meshal and the heads of other Palestinian organizations for their approval, and in so doing to head off the threat of a referendum.

The document is supposed to serve as the basis for a cease-fire, the implicit recognition of Israel and the foundation for expanding the Palestine Liberation Organization to include Hamas. However, none of this can happen while Israel is fighting in Gaza and the Shalit affair is continuing.

Meshal believes he still has enough time to force Israel into a prisoner exchange. In the meantime, however, the Saudi-Egyptian initiative is developing. This is a comprehensive proposal to be submitted to Washington that is to include a full cease-fire, the release of Shalit and the Palestinian prisoners and the adoption of the national document in order to remove the boycott of Hamas. If this is adopted - and that depends mainly on Israel - it will take the ball out of Meshal's court and return it to the PA under broader Arab patronage.