The whole question of the West engaging with Hamas in the Middle East has come very much to the fore with the release of Alan Johnston in Gaza on Wednesday morning. It is not before time. Nor is talking to Hamas something which is unthinkable at the present time. It was our Foreign Office talking directly to Hamas which helped secure Alan Johnston’s release.
I am a longstanding friend of Israel, but I have also made it clear that it is not possible to argue for a two state solution unless you are a friend of the Palestinians too – and that means engaging with all relevant Palestinian elements. I have therefore argued for some time that there could be no two state solution in the Middle East unless Hamas as well as Fatah was involved. An autonomous and viable Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel without the involvement of Hamas is a contradiction in terms. Hamas is a significant – and currently a majority – part of the Palestinian political framework. This is not even taking into account the Palestinian constituency of the refugee camps in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon where they have significant support as well.
The idea that Hamas can be eradicated is a fantasy, and that it can in
the long term be militarily defeated a misapprehension. At some moment,
and I believe sooner rather than later, they will have to be engaged
with. I understand that Israel cannot currently talk to them. That
does not however mean that others should not begin the process of
exploratory dialogue with them, a process which as I personally know
opened vital windows for us with Irish republicanism in similarly
intransigent circumstances a fifteen years ago.
I suggested last weekend in the Sunday Telegraph that Tony Blair, with
his experience of Northern Ireland, should begin such a process. I
have met with Hamas in Beirut on a number of occasions and I believe
that the basis for constructive exploratory dialogue is there.
Dialogue is not negotiation. It explores rather than commits. It is
often the best precursor to future negotiations.
The Quartet has set pre-conditions to engaging with Hamas; the legal
recognition of Israel, the ending of violence and the acceptance of
previously negotiated agreements between the Palestinian Authority and
Israel. My own experience is that patently politically undeliverable
preconditions to dialogue as opposed to an endgame settlement should be
avoided unless they are deliberately intended as "game-busters". The
Hamas statement in March that they accept that Israel exists and that
they wish to build a Palestinian state alongside it may not match the
letter of the first pre-condition, it certainly goes a very long way
towards the spirit of it. The offer of a binding ceasefire addresses
the second, and the agreement to ‘respect’ previous agreements the
third. Exploratory dialogue is not a legal process; it is about
positions and intentions. These responses, stronger than we ever got
in the early stages of engaging with republicanism in Northern Ireland,
surely are sufficient to begin a process which is inevitably going to
have to happen in the end.
There is a further reason why engagement with Hamas is now urgent. It
is over a year since they won what were internationally acknowledged as
free and fair democratic elections in the whole of the Palestinian
Authority. They had overcome internal reservations to go down the
democratic path. When subsequently they were shunned by the Quartet,
it was not their reputation which suffered but that of the meaning of
democracy in the Middle East. It was described to me as "Cinderella
They recognise the need to reengage with President Abbas who they
acknowledge as the properly elected President of the PA. They are
prepared to return to the Mecca Agreement brokered by the Saudis,
supported by Qatar, Syria, Algeria, Yemen, Sudan and the Arab League,
which involves a government of national unity with Fatah and an equally
representative security force, so long as there is an independent
international body monitoring its implementation.
They should be encouraged to do so, and Fatah should be encouraged to
do so too. It is in no-one’s interest to have a divided Palestine.
The opportunity to avoid it and to advance what is currently a moribund
peace process is there. We in the West should back it.
And if it’s right, as undoubtedly it was, to talk to Hamas to help free
Alan Johnston, how can it be wrong to talk to them in the cause of
freeing the Middle East from violence?
For a different perspective on Hamas please read Gerard Baker in today’s Times.