Jordan's king will host the leader of Hamas this weekend, Jordan's information minister said Tuesday, his first official visit since his expulsion 13 years ago, another sign that Jordan is seeking a more active role in Mideast diplomacy.
The visit is seen as part of Jordan's effort to engage with previously shunned Islamists, who have been gaining ground across the region in the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled dictators in Egypt and Tunisia.
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Islamists make up the most influential opposition in Jordan and have been gaining strength in recent months, though King Abdullah II has the final say in all matters.
Hamas rules the Gaza Strip, but its leader, Khaled Mashaal, is based in Damascus, Syria. He moved there in 1999 after Jordan expelled him for "illicit and harmful" activities.
Earlier this month, Jordan, a strong supporter of peace between the Arabs and Israel, began hosting meetings between the chief Israeli and Palestinian negotiators to try to find a way to restart their stalled peace talks.
Re-establishment of a direct connection between Hamas and Jordan, which has a large population of Palestinian refugees, could give Jordan a role in trying to reconcile between Hamas and its rival, the Fatah movement of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
'Reinstating normal relations'
Egypt has been mediating between the two, which run separate governments in Gaza and the West Bank. They have announced agreement on a framework for unifying and holding elections, but the accord has not led to movement on the ground.
"The visit aims at opening channels with all Palestinian factions and reinstating normal relations with Hamas," Information Minister Rakan Majali told the Associated Press, pointing to Jordan's close ties with Abbas.
Majali set strict limits for results of the visit, set for Sunday.
"Hamas will not be allowed any activities on Jordanian soil," he said.
Jordan's 1994 peace treaty with Israel stipulates that both must refrain from allowing activities deemed harmful to the interest of the other country.
Jordan expelled Mashaal and four other Hamas leaders in 1999. Then Jordan blacklisted Hamas because an alleged weapons cache was discovered in the country six years ago.
Since then, Mashaal was allowed to enter Jordan twice on humanitarian grounds – in August 2009 to attend his father's funeral, and again last October to visit his ailing mother.
Jordanian Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh has often said that expelling Mashaal, who holds a Jordanian passport, was a "legal and constitutional mistake which must be corrected."
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