While the world debates Jimmy Carter's decision to meet with Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal, I can't help thinking back to my chance encounter with him at the Four Seasons in Qatar last year, when I was working as a correspondent for Newsweek. Only after elbowing the short, pudgy man crowding the humus platter at the dinner buffet did I realize I was standing face-to-face with the infamous terrorist. Mishaal was delighted to hear that I worked for Newsweek, and after a few minutes of Arabic banter, invited me up to his suite to chat for over an hour, snacking on Syrian dates and cardamom coffee while his half-dozen bodyguards watched a WWF match on TV in the room next door.
Why was the normally reclusive and media-shy Mishaal so excited to speak to a member of the Western press? Our encounter was right after Bush's Annapolis peace conference, and Mishaal was making the rounds of Arab capitols trying to convince the region's leaders that Hamas was not irrelevant despite being left off the summit's guest list. Though his meetings yielded the requisite press conferences and generic statements, Mishaal's uncharacteristically frantic yearning for the spotlight is an illustration of how desperate the group has become to hold on to some level on international credibility--and how, despite Annapolis's inability to make much progress on an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, it actually succeeded to a certain extent in isolating Hamas. Granted, Mishaal got a plum spot on the back page of Newsweek, but that's nothing compared to the cred of meeting with a former U.S. president. Carter's visit with Mishaal this week will go a long way in counteracting the gains made at Annapolis.