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Analysis: Hamas chief seeks wider regional role in new term, but no concessions to Israel

  • File - In this Dec. 9, 2012 file photo, Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal waves during his visit to the Islamic University in Gaza City. Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal has set an ambitious agenda for his new term, seeking to transform his once isolated Islamic militant movement into a widely recognized political force, without making concessions toward Israel needed for international acceptance. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa, File)The Associated Press

  • In this Monday, April 8, 2013 photo, Palestinians work on a Qatar-funded road in Gaza City. The newly re-elected leader of Hamas, Khaled Mashaal, is expected to strengthen ties with Qatar, Egypt and Turkey in his next four-year term. (AP Photo/ Hatem Moussa)The Associated Press

Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal has set an ambitious agenda for his new term, seeking to transform his Islamic militant movement that rules Gaza into a widely recognized political force, but without making concessions toward Israel needed for international acceptance.

Re-elected last week, Mashaal will try to deepen ties with regional powers Qatar, Turkey and Egypt, which have already given money or political support to Hamas-run Gaza and could be conduits to the U.S. and Europe, several leading Hamas figures said. Mashaal will also push for a power-sharing deal with his Western-backed Palestinian rival, President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas ideology, rejecting existence of a Jewish state in an Islamic Middle East, stands in the way. The international community insists it will deal with Hamas only if the Islamic militants recognize Israel, renounce violence and accept previous interim peace deals — conditions Mashaal has repeatedly rejected, though Abbas and his Fatah movement accepted them two decades ago.

Mashaal "wants Hamas to be a recognized and legitimate player," said Jordan-based analyst Mouin Rabbani, who frequently meets with Palestinian politicians, including Hamas members.

"The challenge and conflict is that he has to demonstrate he can do so without going down the same path as Fatah," he said. Fatah, for years the dominant force in Palestinian politics, has been severely weakened by years of failed talks with Israel on terms of a Palestinian state.

Key to Mashaal's plans is a political deal with Abbas, as a possible springboard for joining and eventually taking control of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the umbrella group widely recognized as representing some 11.6 million Palestinians world-wide, according to official Palestinian figures. The Fatah-dominated PLO is largely inactive now, but it remains attractive to Hamas as a way of gaining international status.

A Hamas deal with Abbas would have to wait until the latest U.S. push to revive Israeli-Palestinian negotiations plays itself out.

Setting up a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem through negotiations with Israel remains Abbas' goal.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was in the region this week to try to restart talks between Israel and Abbas. Chances of that in coming months appear slim because gaps remain wide between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Abbas won't complicate Kerry's mission further by renewing talks now with Hamas on ending the Palestinian political split. The U.S. and Europe have branded Hamas a terror group for killing hundreds of Israelis in attacks in the past 25 years.

The Palestinian split broke open in 2006, after Hamas defeated Fatah in parliament elections in the West Bank and Gaza.

A year later, after failed power-sharing attempts, clashes erupted between Fatah and Hamas, ending in the Islamic militant takeover of Gaza.

The two sides have been running rival governments since then, Hamas in Gaza and Abbas in the 38 percent of the Israeli-controlled West Bank, where more than 90 percent of the West Bank's Palestinians live. Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

Last year, Abbas and Mashaal, who are said to get along well, seemed close to ending the rift, but Hamas hard-liners in Gaza torpedoed their deal that would have included elections for parliament and president.

In his new term, Mashaal will seek a different arrangement with Abbas without elections, said a senior Hamas official. Hamas would get a foothold in the PLO, and Hamas would agree to serve as a partner in an Abbas-led Palestinian government in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas would demand to retain control over security forces in Gaza, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was discussing internal Hamas policy. Abbas has rejected that in the past.

Analyst Hani al-Masri, who has been involved in informal talks with members of Hamas and other Palestinian factions on ending the political divide, said, "Mashaal wants to enter the PLO and then lead it."

Khalil al-Hayeh, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, said Palestinians should move ahead with reviving the PLO even if elections cannot be held.

Hamas has said it will compete in such elections only if Israel guarantees it won't arrest Hamas candidates and the world accepts the results — conditions unlikely to be met.

"If Israel says no and America says no (to elections), let us go to the PLO and organize it," said al-Hayeh, a member of the movement's decision-making political bureau. "This is a good solution."

Mashaal said recently that he is willing to give Abbas time to explore the possibilities of reviving peace talks with Israel. Hamas' traditional position is that it will not get in the way of such negotiations, and that any deal would be judged in a referendum.

Hamas officials said they believe the Palestinian president will start negotiating a unity deal only if Kerry's latest initiative runs aground.

The 78-year-old Abbas considers the split a stain on his legacy and is eager to end it before he leaves office.

Mashaal has indicated in the past that he is willing to narrow the ideological gaps. Abbas strongly opposes violence, while Hamas has targeted Israel with suicide bombings, shooting attacks and rocket fire, though it has observed informal cease-fires for extended periods since 2005.

While unwilling to renounce violence formally, Mashaal has told Abbas that he has embraced the idea of "popular protests" against Israeli occupation.

Mashaal won re-election despite his clash with Gaza hard-liners last year, largely because of his close ties with Qatar, Turkey and Egypt, seen as key to Gaza's survival and the Hamas quest for wider regional recognition.

Qatar has pledged $407 million in reconstruction funds for Gaza. Turkey is pressuring Israel to lift its remaining border restrictions on Gaza. Egypt brokered a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza to end an eight-day Israeli military offensive in November aimed at stopping rocket attacks by Gaza militants.

Hamas is a natural ally because the region-wide Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas' ideological parent, is influential all three countries.

In addition to cultivating foreign support, Mashaal managed to split the opposition against him during a visit to Gaza in December. As a result, Gaza Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh was chosen as Mashaal's deputy, marking the first time someone from the Palestinian territories reached such a rank. Even though it was founded in Gaza in 1987, Hamas has traditionally been run by exiles.

Mashaal now has a stronger mandate but also faces new constraints. The Gaza branch of the movement enjoys veto power, and he'll have to listen closely to his international backers. Egypt and Turkey, for instance, both have diplomatic relations with Israel.

"His opponents became weaker than before," said Ahmed Yousef, a Hamas-linked intellectual in Gaza. "But that does not mean he will find a paved road for whatever he would like to suggest. It will be a bumpy road all the time."

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Daraghmeh reported from Ramallah, West Bank. Laub, the AP chief correspondent for the Palestinian territories, has covered the Mideast since 1987.

Follow Laub at www.twitter.com/karin_laub .