A funny thing is happening with the US-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian direct talks – apart from their collapse. While insisting they are doing everything possible to salvage this broken track, the Obama administration, the European Union and Egypt have embarked on a secret move to strengthen Hamas in relation to Mahmoud Abbas, the absentee Palestinian negotiator.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Mideast sources say Hamas's Damascus-based secretary Khaled Meshaal is receptive to the move – and even more to the influx of cash landing on his doorstep from all those sources. He has also gone to work on a new Islamic political-religious treatise that would permit Hamas to join diplomatic negotiations with the Zionist entity.
Recognition is still an unshakeable taboo, but it may be possible to bend fundamentalist Islamic law sufficiently to sanction the presence of Hamas representatives at the same table as the Zionist infidels.
In this, Meshaal is following a precedent. Yasser Arafat was similarly able to turn his religious credo around far enough in 1991to send a Palestinian team to Oslo for dialogue with Israel. It culminated in the Oslo Peace Framework Accords in 1993.
Meshaal is pondering a similar acrobatic feat. But although Arafat began climbing up the political and terror ladder in the 1950s as a paid-up member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, the Hamas leader aims a lot higher for his precedent.
He has taken to referring to chapters in the history of Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub (1138-1193), better known in the West as Saladin, whose Muslim army defeated the Franks and European Crusaders in the Levant and the Holy Land to become the first Ayyubid Sultan of Egypt and Syria and ruler of Mesopotamia, the Hijaz and Yemen.
From the Battle of Hattin to talks with Richard Lionheart
Meshaal makes great play of the Battle of Hattin which marked Saladin's capture of Palestine from the infidels and the Muslim victory against the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem. The Hamas leader finds a strong analogy between Saladin's victory and his belief that Hamas and its allies, Iran, Syria and Hizballah, will eventually wrest the whole of Palestinian from the Zionists. But in the meantime, he seems to find it politic to consider emulating another part of the Saladin epic: In 1192, he opted for diplomacy and discussed the future of Jerusalem with the English king Richard the Lionheart, whose army was then camped in Palestine.
It is on this episode that Meshaal proposes to draw as his precedent for holding talks with the Israelis.
His apparent change of tack is a closely guarded secret not only from the Palestinian Authority, but even from Hamas associates in Gaza and other parts of the Middle East.
Even so, DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources report it has already produced developments:
1. US Ambassador Thomas Pickering, the senior US diplomat overseeing informal ties with Hamas on behalf of the Obama administration, got together recently with European figures performing the same backdoor function. He let them know that Washington would not be averse to their strengthening links with the Palestinian fundamentalists or helping them acquire a more politically-acceptable image than the aggressive-terrorist reputation clinging to Hamas in world and Middle East opinion.
With Hamas a player in Barack Obama's Middle East peace offensive, the talks with Fatah leader Abbas would not have to end in half a Palestinian state but stood a chance of bringing the Gaza Strip into the accord as well as the West Bank.
Pickering is vice chairman of Hills & Company, an international consulting firm which counsels US businesses on investment, trade and risk assessment. Holding the personal rank of Career Ambassador, the highest in the US Foreign Service, Pickering's contact person in the White House is John Brennan, the President's assistant for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism.
European diplomats forging a new Palestinian Islamic party
2. EU foreign policy executive Catherine Ashton and her team in Brussels were quick to take Pickering up on his suggestion. In addition to boosting their undercover relations with Palestinian figures on the West Bank and Gaza Strip who are considered to be Hamas sympathizers, they came up with a plan to establish a new Palestinian Muslim Party. The European bureaucrats offered the pro-Hamas Palestinians, many of them academics, large sums of money, amounting in some cases to an annual stipend of tens of thousands of dollars, to become founder-members of the fledgling party and recruiters of members.
The Europeans would like this party to be both Islamic and moderate enough to bridge the gap between Hamas, on the one hand, and Washington and Brussels, on the other.
In Damascus, Meshaal responded to their feelers to his headquarters by saying he did not object to the new party and would not obstruct its formation.
The European officials updated Thomas Pickering in Washington on the steps they had taken.
3. They have not gone unnoticed in Cairo, particularly in the bureau of Egyptian intelligence minister Gen. Omar Suleiman, who manages his government's tricky relations with Hamas and keeps track of events in the enclave it rules, the Gaza Strip.
(DEBKA-Net-Weekly 463 of Oct. 1 dealt with General Suleiman's secret ties with Khaled Meshaal in the article: The US Grand Middle East Plan Goes Awry – Four Pieces are Trampled by Wild Cards)
Suleiman picked up the challenge. After months of bitter discord, Egypt is offering to meet Hamas halfway if the fundamentalists are willing to return to reconciliation and power-sharing talks with the Mahmoud Abbas' rival Fatah.
Reconciliation would bring Hamas and Gaza into the peace process
If its leaders agree to go another round for bringing the two Palestinian factions together after their first round in Damascus last month, Cairo would consider easting its blockade of the Gaza Strip.
Egypt is anxious for an inter-factional unity accord that would put the Gaza Strip on the table in peace talks with Israel alongside the West Bank.
As an initial gesture, Egypt has not rejected out of hand applications from Hamas' Izz-e-Din al-Qassam commanders and security personnel to leave the Gaza Strip and travel overseas through Cairo international airport.
4. All these comings and goings propelled Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas Tuesday, Oct. 5, into accepting a second round of fence-building talks with Hamas in Damascus. According to Abbas' aides in Ramallah, security issues would be on the table. They were termed the last obstacle on the road to reconciliation between the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority and the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.