The EU should talk to Hamas

Bulletin article
Charles Grant , Clara Marina O'Donnell
01 August 2007

In Britain, senior diplomats are mulling over whether to revise the government’s policy of not talking to Hamas. Until now Britain has staunchly defended the EU policy of opposing talks with Hamas. That policy, shared by the other members of the ‘quartet’ – the UN, the US and Russia – is to reject contact unless three conditions are met: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of existing peace accords. Hamas’s help in obtaining the release of kidknapped BBC journalist Alan Johnston has contributed to the rethink in London. Hamas showed that it cares about how it is perceived abroad, that it wants to be considered a credible actor, and that it hopes to end its international isolation. This gives the EU and other outsiders potential leverage over Hamas. 

Several other European governments are already arguing for a new EU line on Hamas. They point out that the attempt to weaken Hamas by isolating it has failed. In fact that approach seems to have strengthened support for Hamas among Palestinians, while Fatah, its great rival, has suffered from being seen as the West’s favoured friend. 

The EU’s reluctance to engage with Hamas has been understandable. Hamas aspires to build an Islamic society based on sharia law. It gathered support among Palestinians by rejecting the Oslo accords and refusing to recognise Israel's right to exist. It has a history of unleashing terror on Israel through suicide bombs and rocket attacks. And although it won the Palestinian elections in January 2006, Hamas used force to defeat Fatah and seize power in Gaza in June 2007. That episode harmed its international credibility and damaged the chances of a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. Without a single government that is accepted as legitimate by most Palestinians, Israel has no partner to make peace with. 

However, the EU should take note of some conciliatory moves from Hamas over the past two years. The fact that it stood in the 2006 elections was an innovation. It then respected a unilateral ceasefire for six months. And when Hamas became part of the government of national unity that was brokered by Saudi diplomacy in Mecca, it tacitly accepted the Palestinian Authority’s existing international agreements. Furthermore, while Hamas has not officially recognised Israel, its leader in Damascus, Khaled Meshaal, has said that the state of Israel is a “reality” and that “there will remain a state called Israel, this is a matter of fact” (it is worth recalling that the West talks to several Arab states that do not recognise Israel). At the moment, Hamas is a long way from being a credible and serious partner for Israel. But the argument should be over how best to turn it into such a partner. 

The EU should recognise that thepolicy of boycotting Hamas but showering favours on Fatah in the West Bank has contributed to radicalising Hamas and thus provoking Fatah’s overthrow in Gaza. The economic isolation of Gaza is worsening an already dire humanitarian situation, accentuated by Israel shutting most of the border crossings most of the time. And so long as the EU is seen to reject the outcome of legitimately-conducted elections, it exposes itself to accusations of double standards and reduces its credibility in the eyes of many Arabs. 

The EU should therefore seek to engage moderates in Hamas – and the leaders in Gaza seem more pragmatic than those in Damascus. The EU should offer the prospect of recognition and financial assistance, in exchange for good behaviour and a constructive attitude towards talks with Fatah. That could facilitate the return of a single government for all the Palestinian territories, which is a precondition for the revival of the peace process. The EU should not abandon the concept of conditionality, but of the three conditions the one it should focus on is the renunciation of violence. Were Hamas to revive suicide bombings or rocket attacks on Israel, the EU should refuse contact with it. 

Of course, there can be no peace in the region without the support of Israel and the US, both of which strongly oppose the recognition of Hamas. The EU must therefore think carefully about how it sells a new policy on Hamas to Israelis and Americans. The ultimate goal in the Middle East is peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and if EU engagement with Hamas leads to a breakdown in the Union’s relations with Israel and the US, it will have achieved little. 

But the EU has a strong argument to make. In the long term, it is in Israel’s interests that the moderate elements within Hamas – the strongest political entity in Palestine – be strengthened. Talks between the EU and Hamas could and should focus on that objective. The very process of dealing with Hamas could have a transformational effect on the organisation, as was the case with the talks between the British government and the Irish Republican Army (though that process did not deliver results for more than ten years). Evidently, EU-Hamas talks may not produce a positive outcome. But neither the US nor Israel can claim that the status quo is doing much to enhance the security of Israelis. 

President George Bush is certainly in no hurry to talk to Hamas. In a speech on July 16th, he described Hamas as “murderers in black masks…[more] devoted to extremism and murder than serving the Palestinian people”. Hamas will not be invited to the peace conference in the autumn that Bush announced in the same speech. 

We do not know Tony Blair’s view on engaging Hamas. But if there is one person who can persuade Washington and Tel Aviv of the need for a rethink, it is the quartet’s new envoy. He has credibility in both capitals and cannot be accused of being soft on terrorism. He is also acutely aware of the broader strategic picture. The more Gaza becomes isolated from the West, the greater the risk that Iran or al-Qaeda will strengthen their foothold in the territory. Although Hamas has ties to Iran, it is not controlled by Tehran. Furthermore, Hamas is a nationalist movement that does not share al-Qaeda’s jihadist ideology. 

Blair should make these points to the US and Israel. It is not inconceivable that the next US administration, keen to make a fresh start in foreign policy, could discreetly encourage the EU to meet Hamas – just as Bush encouraged the EU to talk to Iran – while itself remaining aloof. Blair should try to persuade the US and Israel that there can be no peace without engaging Hamas.

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