This is potentially huge: Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, generally considered a hard-liner within the group, has acknowledged the existence of Israel:
Israel is a “reality” and “there will remain a state called Israel, this is a matter of fact,” Meshal said in an interview.
The problem was not Israel’s existence but the failure to establish a state for Palestinians, said Meshal, whose party leads the Palestinian government.
We’ll have to see, of course, whether this lasts, or whether it will be followed by the standard retractions and denials. But if it is real, it is a potential earthquake.
The question remains about what Meshal considers “Israel” to be. As I have argued repeatedly, the real roadblock toward getting an agreement is the Palestinian insistence on the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to pre-1967 Israel, which would wipe it out demographically. So the Palestinian position has traditionally boiled down to recognizing Israel as long as it is an Arab state. But still, this is a definite opening.
Why has it occurred? Three possibilities come to mind. I don’t know if any of them are true, but they are plausible.
1) The Palestinian civil war in the occupied territories, and the western sanctions against the Hamas government, are biting the organization hard. Hamas is losing and imploding, and needs this to save itself.
2) The Sunni countries–Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, are scared to death of the resurgence of Shia power, and want to move on this issue now, before it gets worse. For its part, Hamas understands that Iran has no interest in it other than as a pawn in its drive for greater power, so it is better to work with the Sunni countries now.
3) Hamas has long believed this, but never believed that it could say so for fear of losing its street cred. Given its losses on the streets, it figures it might as well now.
4) This is about internal Palestinian politics: Meshal is setting forth a formulation that will alllow Hamas to join a unity government with PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah. It’s not a real position. (See Scenario 1: Hamas needs this because it is losing the civil war).
Other scenarios are possible.
The Bush Administration had better be ready to respond in some constructive way to this. I have long been skeptical of the idea that if the United States was just more “involved”, then somehow the Israeli-Palestinian issue could resolve itself. As long as the Palestinians insisted on the right of return, then there was nowhere to go. But this could constitute some room for daylight.