Most people, even in the Palestinian territories and in Israel, had never heard of Khaled Meshaal until Israeli Mossad agents attempted to assassinate him in Jordan one day in September, 1997.
The agents, bearing falsified Canadian passports, bungled the job and created an international incident. Outraged that the attack was carried out on his soil, King Hussein of Jordan responded by demanding, among other things, that Israel supply the antidote to the poison they had used.
In the aftermath, the world focused on the man at the centre of all the attention, who was then a senior figure in the militant Palestinian Hamas movement and is now at its helm.
Few Palestinians even today have met Mr. Meshaal, because he has lived outside the territory where he was born for 42 of his 53 years. But they are seeing more of him on television now, talking with Israel about a truce after the recent Gaza invasion, talking with the rival Palestinian Fatah party about reconciliation and - as of last week - talking to the Arab world about the future of the peace process.
Mr. Meshaal made a speech in Damascus last Thursday that was billed as a response to U.S. President Barack Obama's recent speech in Cairo as well as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's remarks in Tel Aviv.
As expected, he rejected the Netanyahu proposal of a demilitarized Palestinian state and the demand to recognize Israel as a Jewish state (which he said would "mean the denial of the right of six million Palestinian refugees to return to their homes").
But Mr. Meshaal did surprise people: He said Hamas is prepared to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders of the West Bank and Gaza, rather than reclaiming all of Israel. While that would not mean the absolute end of the struggle, he said, Hamas would allow the two states to live beside each other for many years in peace.
Shlomo Brom, a retired Israeli brigadier-general who negotiated with the Palestinians, says the remarks show that, within Hamas, the moderate view has triumphed over the radical one.
While Mr. Meshaal and others have spoken before of being willing to accept the 1967 borders, "now, for the first time, Meshaal presented this position as Hamas's official stance, and did so in Arabic for the Arab public," Gen. Brom says.
West Bank boyhood
Khaled Meshaal hails from the West Bank village of Silwad, north of Ramallah. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, when he was a young boy, the area was controlled by Jordan. The village of low stone houses sat upon a single hilltop with a commanding view over its rocky hillsides, olive groves and Christian villages in the valley below.
The community was renowned for its resistance to the British during their mandate in the 1930s, and Mr. Meshaal recalls, with pride, stories of his father's involvement in the resistance.
The young Khaled, the oldest of three children, was raised by his mother, as his father had left in 1960 to find work in Kuwait as a preacher.
Abdal Ayad, a Silwad classmate, recalls a simple life of school and family and summer hikes to pick figs and lie in the grass. "Khaled was not athletic," Mr. Ayad says. "He was more academic. The teacher was always citing him as a model for others.
"And," he adds, "he was always praying."
When the Six Day War in June, 1967, left Israel occupying the area, the Meshaal family left to join their father in Kuwait. Khaled studied physics, became active in the Muslim Brotherhood and went on to teach.
In later years, memories of his village still came to him often. "Those years are to me as the roots are to a tree," he told an interviewer last year. "My greatest delight is to go to the park and, as I sit on the earth, I recall the smell of the soil of Palestine, the soil of Silwad."
But the fact is that, apart from his first 11 years, Khaled Meshaal has spent almost no time in the land he is fighting for.
It was while in Kuwait, in 1988, that Mr. Meshaal joined the new Hamas (an acronym for Islamic Resistance Movement in Arabic), which was really just a Palestinian version of the Muslim Brotherhood. He proved adept at fundraising, established links to Iran and became part of the group's political bureau after moving to Amman.
When the first political director, Moussa Abu Marzouk, was arrested in 1995 and extradited to the United States, Mr. Meshaal took his place and never looked back.
He was finally deported from Jordan two years after the Mossad assassination attempt; he apparently had assumed that King Hussein, who had gone to great lengths to help save his life, would ignore Hamas's ongoing terrorist activity in Israel.
After a brief time in Qatar, Mr. Meshaal moved the Hamas political bureau to Damascus, where it remains today. After both Hamas founder Sheik Ahmed Yassin and his successor, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, were assassinated by Israel in 2004, Mr. Meshaal became the highest-ranking member.
There would be tensions between Damascus and Gaza, where Hamas has governed since winning a parliamentary majority in 2007. But as prominent pan-Arab journalist Zaki Chehab writes in his book Inside Hamas , "[It]was Meshaal who was running the show. The al-Qassam Brigades [Hamas's military wing]answered directly to him."
Lamb in wolf's clothing?
Qaddura Fares, a Fatah activist and another native of Silwad who has known Mr. Meshaal since childhood, describes him as "ethical" and "truthful," but he adds, "I think he's always been very pragmatic."
This is an unexpected thing to hear about a man who often seems like a fiery ideologue. But Mr. Fares says Mr. Meshaal only "talks tough because he has to prove to the people in Gaza he's no pushover."
He says his friend was happy to offer a truce to Israel in 2003 at the height of the second intifada or uprising (Israel declined) and welcomed the 2006 "prisoners' document" in which jailed Fatah and Hamas members set out a new framework for working together, including an indirect acceptance of a two-state solution.
Indeed, King Hussein of Jordan has revealed that just two days before the 1997 assassination attempt, Mr. Meshaal sent a note to Israel offering to open a back-channel dialogue with the Netanyahu government that would be facilitated by the King.
An injection of poison in his ear was not the response he was looking for.
As well, it was in 2005, under Mr. Meshaal, that Hamas ended its suicide-bombing attacks on Israeli civilians, vowing that it would not employ such terrorism again.
Many thought that Israel's recent attack on Gaza would lead Hamas to return to suicide bombing. In June, 2003, when their offer of a hudna (ceasefire) was spurned by Israel, Hamas's leadership (including Mr. Meshaal) went back to war, launching new terrorist assaults against Israel and prolonging the second Palestinian intifada .
But this time it has been different.
Two years ago, Mr. Meshaal told Alastair Crooke, a British security analyst and author of Resistance: The Essence of the Islamist Revolution , that the aim of Hamas's extreme violence was never to defeat the Israelis militarily, but to change the Israeli mindset.
"Israel still, at this time, plainly does not feel the need to pay any price," he said, adding that it thinks it can dictate terms to a weaker party. "It needs to understand that in Hamas there is a tough negotiator.
"But one," he hastened to add, "that, unlike others, stands by its commitments when given."
With the new Obama administration, Mr. Meshaal is showing unprecedented willingness to engage and to consider a long-term arrangement of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel - with one caveat.
"We in Hamas, like most of the Palestinian factions, have accepted the idea of a state with the borders of June 4, 1967," Mr. Meshaal told an interviewer last year. "However, we have said that we will not recognize Israel.
"Why? It is because the Palestinian people are convinced that the land which Israel occupies is their land," he said. "If, through politics, we can come to agree to a Palestinian state with the borders of 1967, why should we be forced to renounce our beliefs and feelings too?"Report Typo/Error