Joe Klein happened to interview the Hamas leader an hour after Obama's Cairo speech. Meshal wasn't impressed:
"Undoubtedly Obama speaks a new language," he told me. "His speech was cleverly designed... The essence of the speech was to improve the U.S. image and to placate the Muslims. We don't mind either objective, but we are looking for more than just mere words. If the United States wishes to open a new page, we definitely would welcome this. We are keen to contribute to this. But we [believe that can not happen] merely with words. It must be with deeds, by changing the policy on the ground."
Meshal went on: "A Palestinian listening to the speech would have a simple question: where are the true actual issues that touch our lives? A Palestinian listening didn't hear anything about the Israeli war in Gaza or about Israel's war crimes." He mentioned the alleged use of depleted uranium and white phosphorous. "A beautiful discourse lacks credibility if it doesn't address Gaza."
Meshal refused to make concessions on any of the points Obama mentioned--renouncing the use of violence (although he did say that Hamas was willing to discuss a formal ceasefire), recognizing the state of Israel or the prior commitments made by the Palestinian Authority to a peace process. I asked him about this portion of the speech:
It is a sign of neither courage nor power to shoot rockets at sleeping children, or to blow up old women on a bus. That is not how moral authority is claimed; that is how it is surrendered.
"Palestinian actions are reactions. What Palestinians do is to resist the occupation," he said. "It is self-defense. Why did the Americans support the Mujaheddin against the Soviets in Afghanistan? Why did the British support the French agains the Nazis? Why did you have a revolution against the British? Self-defense."
I made the obvious point about the difference between self-defense and targeting civilians. "But civilians die in wars," one of Meshal's aides pitched in. "You call it collateral damage."
No real surprise there. Just a reminder of how monumental Obama's challenge is.