By Arab News
By Osama Al Sharif
After weeks of uncertainty and controversy Khaled Meshaal, the charismatic Hamas leader, finally made it to Amman in what has been labeled by local commentators as an historic visit. Accompanied by Qatar’s crown prince and a high ranking political bureau delegation, Meshaal and his entourage were scurried off to the royal palace where they met King Abdallah, the first such meeting since the king assumed the throne and Hamas officials were deported to Qatar in 1999.
Most of Hamas senior officials, including Meshaal, are Jordanian citizens. Prime Minister Awn Al-Khasawneh has described their deportation to Qatar 12 years ago as “a constitutional” error. And since the former international jurist took over as premier he has been keen on mending state relations with the country’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) leadership. Jordan’s recent rapprochement with Hamas, a powerful Palestinian faction currently ruling Gaza Strip but with special links to Jordan’s MB, ends more than a decade of cool and sometimes troubled relationship between the two.
But it is too early to read too much into the recent visit. Jordan is far from allowing the movement’s political bureau to re-open its offices in Amman. At best observers believe the visit will pave the way for direct contacts between Jordan and Hamas, allow some movement officials and their families to relocate to the kingdom and give Jordan more leeway in handling inter-Palestinian reconciliation while boosting its regional role in Middle East peace negotiations.
Jordan has recently played host to six so-called exploratory meetings between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators, attended by the International Quartet’s special envoy, with the aim of finding common grounds to re-launch stalled peace talks. The meetings were a failure. But they did enliven Jordanian attempts to play a much proactive role as an intermediary between the Palestinians and Israel, especially after the fall of the regime of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak last year.
Restoring relations with Hamas must be seen in the light of a number of factors. First, the Jordanian government has been trying to engage the Hamas movement in the background of unrelenting weekly demonstrations calling for political reforms, a representative government and an end to official corruption. Second, Hamas’ political bureau, now based in Damascus, is said to be seeking to diminish its presence in Syria, which has been witnessing anti-regime uprisings for more than 10 months now. And third, Meshaal has made a number of overtures hinting at the movement’s strategic shift from military to nonviolent resistance coinciding with Hamas’ readiness to join a reformed and restructured PLO and its willingness to complete reconciliation with Fateh under President Mahmoud Abbas.
Meshaal has been buoyant over the achievements of the Arab Spring which has brought fellow Islamists to positions of leadership in Tunisia, Egypt, and Morocco, and possibly later in Jordan, Libya and Yemen. The success of largely nonviolent uprisings in the Arab world has rekindled hopes that the Palestinians, who take credit for triggering the first peaceful uprising in 1988, will undoubtedly benefit from such geopolitical changes in the region.
In fact Meshaal has been sending mixed signals in the past few weeks. He has declared that he will not be seeking a new term as Hamas leader, but observers are not sure what that would entail. He could be setting himself up for a bigger role within the new PLO or even the Palestinian authority. And he could be testing the mood inside Hamas’ rank and file. While Hamas does not recognize Israel it has declared that it will be willing to accept an independent Palestinian state within the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. Such a position is not without its critics within Hamas, especially in Gaza, but it is seen as an attempt to bring the movement closer to the mainstream whereby it can enjoy bigger regional and international recognition.
If Hamas is coming in from the cold, then Jordan would like take credit for that. Amman enjoys a special relationship with Washington and even though ties with Israel have been on edge under Benjamin Netanyahu, King Abdallah has kept the peace treaty alive and still maintains contacts with senior Israeli leaders.
Bringing in Hamas closer to the moderate Arab camp should end its reliance on Iran and Syria, both of which are coming increasingly under international pressure. Jordan also hopes to benefit from a warming up in relations with Qatar, whose regional influence has been growing lately.
At the same time striking a balanced relationship between the PNA and Hamas — the latter has stressed its rejection of any deal that involves settling Palestinian refugees in Jordan — should assure Jordanians who remain fearful of an American-Israeli conspiracy to turn Jordan into an alternative Palestinian state.
It is not clear how Washington and Tel Aviv feel about a Jordan-Hamas rapprochement. Both remain critical of any accommodation of what they consider as a terrorist organization, but the price of distancing Hamas from Tehran and Damascus must be worth a lot for some especially if one still believes that a negotiated settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict remains tenable.
— Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.