by Charles Grant and Clara O’Donnell
The conspicuous role of Hamas in the recent release of Alan Johnston was not only good news for the BBC correspondent. 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 means that the EU and other outsiders have potential leverage over the organisation that rules Gaza. Several European governments believe that the Union should rethink its current policy of refusing to engage with Hamas. They argue, with much justice, that the attempt to weaken Hamas by isolating it has failed; and that this policy 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.
It is time for the EU to consider talking directly to Hamas. Currently, the position of the EU – alongside the other members of the quartet, the UN, the US and Russia – is that it will not talk unless three conditions are met: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, and acceptance of existing peace accords. And there remain many good arguments against the EU engaging with this Islamic group, such as its ambition for Islamic rule, its refusal to recognise Israel's right to exist, its links to violence and terror, and its numerous rocket attacks on Israelis. Although it won the last Palestinian elections, Hamas used force to seize power in Gaza in June 2007. That episode damaged its international credibility and its legitimacy as a winner of democratic elections, and it also limited the chances of getting Hamas and Fatah to work together constructively. Without a single government 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 since it won the elections in January 2006. Hamas respected a unilateral ceasefire for six months. And when it became part of the government of national unity that was brokered by Saudi diplomacy at Mecca, Hamas tacitly accepted the Palestinian Authority’s existing international agreements. Furthermore, while Hamas has still 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”. At the moment Hamas is clearly not the kind of credible international actor that could be a serious partner for Israel; the argument is over the best way to turn it into such actor. And it is clear that the current policy is not working.
The EU should recognise that the policy of boycotting of Hamas but showering favours on Fatah in the West Bank has been at best ineffectual, and at worst it has contributed to radicalising Hamas and provoking Fatah’s overthrow in Gaza. The grim gap that now separates the two parts of Palestine is imposing unacceptable humanitarian costs – the Gaza economy is already in a dire state, largely because Israel closes most of the border crossings most of the time. So long as the EU continues to reject the outcome of legitimately-conducted elections, it exposes itself to accusations of double standards and reduces its credibility in the eyes of the many in the Arab world.
The EU should seek to entice the moderate elements in Hamas with 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 worry about is the renunciation of violence. Were Hamas to return to suicide bombs or rocket attacks on Israel, the EU should have nothing to do with it.
Of course, there can be no peace in the region without the support of Israel and the US, both of which are strongly opposed to the recognition of Hamas. The EU must think very carefully about how it sells a new policy on Hamas to Israel and the United States. 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 very 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 talks 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. Evidently, the talks might not produce that positive outcome. But neither the US nor Israel can claim that the status quo is doing much to enhance the security of Israelis.
The US, in its current pre-election phase, will be very reluctant to contemplate talking to Hamas. But in the Bush administration – which does not have to worry about winning votes in the next presidential election – moderates such as Condoleezza Rice now have the edge over hard-line Israel-firsters such as Dick Cheney. It is not inconceivable that the US could discreetly encourage the EU to take the lead in engaging with Hamas (as it earlier encouraged the EU to talk to Iran), while itself remaining aloof. The broader regional perspective may yet encourage the US – and possibly even Israel – to welcome the EU playing such a role. Given the growth of both Islamism and Iranian influence in the region stretching from Lebanon to Afghanistan, the US could reason that engaging Hamas would help to prevent an increase in the influence of either Iran or al-Qaeda in Gaza.
Charles Grant is the director and Clara O’Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.