Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal on Sunday made his first official visit to Jordan since the kingdom expelled him more than a decade ago and held talks with King Abdullah.
Meshaal was accompanied by Qatar’s Crown Prince Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. The visit was planned before an uprising erupted in Syria, where Hamas has had its main headquarters outside the Gaza Strip.
“We are happy with this new good start ... We are keen on building strong ties with Jordan and on its security, stability and interests,” Meshaal was quoted as saying in a palace statement after the meeting, according to AFP.
“With this new chapter in relations with Jordan, we hope Jordanian and Palestinian interests will be served,” said the leader of the Palestinian Islamic movement.
Meshaal, who has Jordanian nationality, blasted Israel.
“Hamas stands firm against Israel’s schemes to turn Jordan into a substitute homeland. Jordan is Jordan and Palestine is Palestine. We insist on restoring Palestinian rights,” he said.
Both Hamas and Jordan have denied that the Islamist movement may move its headquarters from Damascus, where many of its Jordanian leadership relocated after being expelled from the kingdom in 1999. The Syrian conflict has forced Hamas to move some of its activists and families out of the country.
“Jordan supports the Palestinian Authority as well as Palestinian reconciliation,” King Abdullah told Meshaal at the meeting, attended by a Hamas political bureau delegation, including number two Mussa Abu Marzuk.
“Uniting the Palestinian stand will strengthen the Palestinian people and help restore their rights,” said the king, whose country aims to help efforts at inter-Palestinian reconciliation.
“The talk about the visit preceded the events in Syria and is not linked,” Izzat Risheq, a senior Hamas official, said, according to Reuters.
Hamas and Jordanian officials said neither side discussed reopening the Hamas office in Jordan.
Diplomatic and intelligence sources say Meshaal, 55, who has been based in Damascus since 2001, has effectively abandoned those headquarters, where he had been relative safety following a botched Israeli attempt on his life in the 1990s.
Jordan has indicated it will accommodate families of the Syrian based leadership, many of whom are Jordanian citizens, but would not tolerate political activities on its soil.
Analysts and Islamists say the visit has been given impetus by regional turmoil in which Islamists have made major political gains across the region following the “Arab Spring” uprisings, notably in Tunisia and Egypt.
Abdullah, a U.S. ally whose country was the second Arab state to make peace with Israel in 1994, is central to moribund Middle East peace efforts and seeks to appear as an honest broker with Palestinian factions, although the monarch strongly backs President Mahmoud Abbas.
Hamas consolidated its rule in the Gaza Strip in 2007 by overwhelming the forces of Abbas’ Palestinian Authority, following victory in legislative elections.
Meshaal, a Jordanian citizen, was deported to Qatar after a crackdown by security forces on the movement in 1999 amid charges it harmed Jordanian national interests.
Meshaal, who survived a 1997 assassination attempt in Amman by the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, has also made two shorts visits to Jordan since 1999 to attend his father’s funeral and see his ailing mother.
The crackdown embittered many Jordanians of Palestinian origin, a majority of the population, who saw it as a dangerous precedent in a country where many native Jordanians oppose a larger political role for Palestinians.
Jordan’s powerful opposition Islamists, who are ideologically close to Hamas, hailed Meshaal’s visit.
“The meeting today (Sunday) is historic. Qatari mediation is supporting the palace's efforts to reformulate Jordan-Hamas relations in line with national interests,” the Muslim Brotherhood said on its website.
“There are forces that are not pleased with this visit and see themselves losing as a result,” said Zaki Bani Irsheid, a leader of the Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood.
Domestically, the visit is likely to help improve ties between the regime and Jordan’s Islamists, who have since January 2011 led an Arab Spring-inspired movement for political and economic reforms and for an end to corruption.
Jordanian Prime Minister Awn Khasawneh, a former International Criminal Court judge, said when he formed his government in November that the expulsion of Hamas leaders had been “a constitutional and political error.”
Khasawneh’s steps to co-opt Islamists to the cabinet have drawn the ire of the powerful security and native Jordanian political establishment that regards any comeback by Hamas as a boost to Islamists.