Middle East Monitor / December 6, 2019
Surprisingly, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas made a phone call to former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal, to get reassured about his health condition, which led to the rapid spread of the news among the Palestinians. Nonetheless, Hamas and Abbas have not revealed the content of the phone call, even if it included a political talk.
The following lines highlight exactly what happened, how Hamas and Fatah dealt with it, the role of Qatar in bringing them closer, the fact that the real chemistry between Meshaal and Abbas, and the political implications of these new contacts.
On 3 December, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas received a phone call from Khaled Meshaal, the former head of Hamas political bureau, to sympathise with him the death of Ahmed Abdel Rahman, Abbas’s former adviser, who died on 2 December in Ramallah.
The official Palestinian news agency WAFA revealed on 27 November that Abbas had telephoned Meshaal, who resides in Qatar, to get reassured about his health condition and wished him a speedy recovery. This was the first call between them since May 2018.
The news surprised the Palestinians for several reasons, the first of which is the issue of Meshaal’s health problem, as he is 63 years old, and he has not previously suffered from illness symptoms. The second of these reasons is that Abbas has not been in touch with Hamas leaders for a long time, and this was his first contact with them for a long time ago. The fourth reason is that the call was made while Abbas was in a visit to Qatar, between 27-29 November, which rules that Qatar might have asked him to make the call, considering that Meshaal has strong ties with its Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani.
A fourth exciting reason for the call is its coincidence with Hamas’s announcement of its approval for the elections on 26 November. The fifth reason is that Abbas called Meshaal, despite the latter’s departure from Hamas’s leadership in May 2017, which raises serious questions about his continued influence within the movement.
Middle East Monitor learned from Hamas circles in Qatar that “Meshaal is suffering from minor pains in the leg and pelvis, and he is visiting doctors from time to time. Qatari officials learned about his sickness, and when Abbas visited them, they asked him to contact Meshaal to get reassured about his health condition, and Meshaal, in turn, thanked him for this move.”
Meshaal has been in a good health condition and has no illnesses. In 2013, photos of him were spread, showing him dressed in sports clothing, doing muscle exercises inside a gym, and playing table tennis. He also survived a failed Israeli assassination attempt in September 1997 in Jordan, and he might have permanently recovered from it, or it no longer had side effects.
At first glance, Abbas and Meshaal’s call seems social and personal, but they contain signs of keenness to continue communication and not cut off ties. The Palestinians are in the face of a call from the first-level leader for both sides, and they are in the wake of big national entitlements such as elections, although several Hamas and Fatah leaders periodically contact each other. Both sides talk with each other, but when this is carried out between the two sides’ front-row leaders, this may be a little different.
The writer learned from Hamas circles in Gaza that Meshaal immediately informed the current head of Hamas’ political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, about Abbas’ call and its content, as Meshaal has been used to brief Haniyeh on all his political movements through the telephone calls he receives, or those he makes. This is because they both have very close ties.
Fatah regulators consider that Abbas’ contacts with Meshaal confirm that there is real personal chemistry between them. They have frequently met, and they have been continuously in touch. They consider Meshaal a lithe figure, and he has sought to achieve Palestinian reconciliation on several occasions. Also, they think that Meshaal’s departure from Hamas’s leadership does not mean the underestimation of his significant influence within the movement, as his words are still heard inside it.
Eighteen months have passed since the last contact between Abbas and Meshaal, although they had made reciprocal contacts. In May 2018, Meshaal called Abbas to get reassured about his health condition. In December 2016, Meshaal called Abbas, congratulating him on the success of the seventh Fatah forum. In July 2014, Abbas received a call from Meshaal to discuss the Israeli escalation in Gaza. In October 2013, Meshaal called Abbas to congratulate him on Eid Al-Adha. In April 2013, Abbas called Meshaaland congratulated him on his re-election as head of Hamas’s political bureau.
In November 2012, Abbas received a call from Meshaal, affirming Hamas’s support and blessing for Palestine’s heading towards the United Nations to elevate the status of Palestine to an observer state. In October 2011, Meshaal called Abbas to discuss the Palestinian reconciliation file. In October 2011, Abbas received a phone call from Meshaal, briefing him about a prisoner exchange deal between Hamas and Israel in the same month.
The writer made sure that Abbas’ recent call with Meshaal came in response to Doha’s request, as Abbas is aware of its strong relationship with Hamas, and seeks to obtain the same status of Meshaal, prompting Abbas to call Meshaal. Qatar seems to be interested in bringing Meshaal to the political events scene, and Abbas knows that Meshaal is still the same, even if he left Hamas’s leadership, as his influence is no secret to Abbas and Qatar. It is therefore impossible to talk about a purely social call, because it carries political implications, although not disclosed.
What could give a political implication to Abbas’ call with Meshaal is that the latter enjoys extensive ties, such as his visit to Turkey in November and his meeting with its President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan? In June, Meshaal met Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. In May, he visited Malaysia and met with its Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. In May, Meshaal met with Deputy Chairman of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party, Numan Kurtulmuş, in Istanbul. Abbas has also made several other Arab and international meetings in Qatar, which he did not disclose in the media.
Abbas’ relationship with Meshaal has evolved because of the latter’s unitary discourse, and the influence of Qatar and Turkey, which have been keen to keep the relationship between the two men. Indeed, Meshaal does not have an official position in the front-row of Hamas leadership, but he is the key to the movement’s relationship with some countries such as Turkey and Qatar. It noteworthy that Abbas’ call with Meshaal does not bother Hamas’s current leadership, as it is capable of arranging the rivalry of its leaders and positions of influence to maintain its unity.
It is important to remember that Meshaal and Abbas did not have a good relationship in the past, especially after Hamas’s winning of the 2006 elections and Abbas’ ascension to power to defend the Hamas government at the beginning. However, this relationship seems to have gradually evolved effectively from Meshaal at the first level, in addition to the latter’s discourse that has often taken a distance from partisan rivalries.
There is also another important consideration related to internal developments in Hamas that may contribute to bringing some personalities and communities closer to the political adversary. After the establishment of the PA, the Fatah leadership has long been focusing its attack on Hamas’s leadership outside the Palestinian territories, considering it as the most radical leadership, which has the power of decision and money. Nonetheless, at a later stage, the other regions have started competing with the external parties, surpassing it in their financial and external capabilities, and leading the competition with the PA, as is the case with the Gaza Strip now.
The continuation of bilateral contacts between Abbas and Meshaal reinforces the aspirations of many circles in Hamas to the possibility of the latter’s return to leadership. Meshaal has always been present, even after leaving Hamas’s leadership, and has been coordinating his steps with the movement’s current administration, which sometimes assigns him sensitive tasks that only Meshaal himself can accomplish.
It is worth mentioning that the Fatah leadership has always been taking advantage of the conflicts of all factions. It had often used this card in the early stages of the Palestinian Authority, and I do not think it will give it up.
Finally, the continuation of contacts between Abbas and Meshaal after a long absence can be explained by the fact that Abbas is aware that Meshaal’s departure from Hamas’s leadership does not mean that the latter took a rest and retired in his home. Still, he instead remained close to the decision-making circles, whether because of his stay in Qatar, or for his movements in many capitals and his network of regional and international close ties, as well as his influence on the leadership of Hamas in Gaza, and his attempts to soften its positions towards elections and reconciliation, according to Abbas’ wishes.
Adnan Abu Amer is a Palestinian academic