Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Over the last 10 years, I’ve interviewed Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal four times.
One thing you always notice when interviewing Meshaal is that he doesn’t give short answers. He doesn’t often speak publicly, but when he does, his sentences are laden with context – and, some might say, excuses.
The reasons why, for example, Hamas shells Israeli civilians, builds military tunnels around Gaza and refuses to recognize the state of Israel.
Israel allegedly nearly succeeded in assassinating him 20 years ago by jabbing deadly poison into his ear. Since then, he has learned that silence and secrecy can be more powerful than words.
It’s been about a decade since Hamas last claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing in Israel, yet it has never denounced the tactic. It keeps both Israelis and Meshaal’s grass roots guessing.
Talking to me off-camera this week, he gave an unexpected insight into the limitations he faces in communicating with his followers in Gaza. We were discussing the Palestinian prisoners who had begun a hunger strike two weeks ago.
Meshaal told me he understood that the Irish Republican Army made a success out of hunger strikes by putting prisoners on fast sequentially, so one died, then another, then another, then another.
Meshaal admitted his biggest problem with the prisoners right now is coordinating their hunger strikes. He didn’t say how he was getting around the problem, but he left me in no doubt he’d make sure his message got through.
Hearing of these difficulties off-camera made watching him up close as he spoke with Hamas’ rising cadre of leaders hugely revealing.
It wasn’t the half-dozen Hamas heavies flanking him at the long table in a fancy hotel in Doha, Qatar, that caught my attention, but the Hamas activists and honchos in Gaza, who were beamed in by satellite and staring down from jumbo TV screens.
They weren’t just an oversize reminder of the hardships of life in Gaza – particularly when the electricity there went out during the event – but a clear pointer to Hamas’ future.
Lined up on the front row in Gaza was new Prime Minister Yahya al-Sinwar, a former Hamas military commander who spent more than 20 years in Israeli jails.
After a serving for the maximum two terms as Hamas chief, Meshaal is stepping down.
The event was orchestrated to roll out Hamas’ plan for the future: a 42-point “political document” updating its 1988 founding charter.
“This is not mine,” Meshaal announced. “It’s Hamas’ document,” he told the Doha and Gaza crowds simultaneously. Later, he told me it’s what he hopes the current grass roots of Hamas will teach their kids.
But what became abundantly clear once Meshaal wrapped up his monologue was the worry and concern in Gaza.
“Who have you been talking to?” “Where are you taking us?” “Have you forgotten about suffering or loss?”
In response, Meshaal’s cadence rose from charismatic crescendos to authoritarian insistence.
When challenged, he was up to it. But on the jumbo screens, Sinwar and some around him smirked. It seemed they took pleasure in Meshaal’s discomfort. He wasn’t squirming, but he was feeling the heat.
He’s never lived in Gaza. And in that room, no amount of pre-spin could hide the gulf between Hamas’ leadership in exile and its roots in Gaza.
Over the decades, I’ve watched other terror groups soften their image and move into the political mainstream. The IRA’s political leaders in Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams and the late Martin McGuinness, slowly limped their campaign of terror off the battlefield into retirement.
It was a glacial process, but their personal credibility allowed them to drag their associates toward a peace agreement with the British.
I was reminded of this watching Meshaal in the lavish Qatar hotel, more than 1,000 miles from the suffering in Gaza, as he tried to bring his group en masse to a new political place.
He is softening Hamas’ image by reframing the fight with Israel as one not about religion, but politics, and by glossing over its Islamist roots.
But no leader, no matter how charismatic – and Meshaal appears to be well above average – can move faster than his or her base.
Look at the speed at which Hamas is moving now. Much has been made of the document announcing that Hamas is recognizing the 1967 borders: “a fully sovereign and independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital along the lines of the 4th June 1967.”
But he told me the same thing when I met him in hiding in Damascus in August 2007: “Our wish (is) to have a Palestinian state based on the borders before June 4, 1967.”
It’s not the only item in the new document that has been so long in the works that the whole thing feels more like a recap of Hamas history than a new vision.
Meshaal appears to have been spending much of his final term in office getting political buy-in from his replacements so that his vision becomes legacy.
That it has taken so long speaks volumes about his determination and strongly hints at the resistance he has faced.
When delivering the new document, Meshaal let Donald Trump know he has a window to do something: “This is a plea from me to the Trump administration, the new American administration, to wake up from the wrong approaches of the past.”
Just as Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah II of Jordan did when they met with Trump, Meshaal praised the US leader and framed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as at the root of the ISIS issue.
“Some extremists have exploited this to wage open battles, and this is the extremism that the entire world suffers from. This is an opportunity to prune the roots of the problem and for us to build a real peace.”
These words reminded me of something said by the most famous modern-day Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, when talking to my colleague Christiane Amanpour almost 20 years ago.
He said if the world won’t work with him to help the Palestinians, then “if not, another will come to liberate it,” with a grin.
Whichever leaders comes after Meshaal, it is likely they were staring at him from Gaza through a huge TV monitor in that plush Doha ballroom. They seemed hungry for the power he is relinquishing.
After our interview, I tried to joke with Meshaal that soon he’ll be retired and can leave the pressures of Hamas behind.
He fixed me with one of his serious stares and started a mini-lecture about his past.
“I helped found Hamas when I was at university in Kuwait,” he told me, “I can’t let go. I will stay involved. (It is) partly my baby.”
I put it to him that there comes a point for all parents when they must wave their baby goodbye; all they can do is ask their teenager to be home by 10 p.m. He laughed out loud and nodded.
We both understand for all his careful messaging about Hamas’ evolution, and years of internal struggle for a softer image, the day is coming where his comments will count little more than chiding to a recalcitrant child and less the commandments they once were.