Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Talking to Hamas


Tuesday March 20, 2007
The Guardian

If you want to hear what a policy sounds like when it is in the process of splintering, listen to the calls to recognise the Palestinian unity government. Yesterday Norway's deputy foreign minister became the first high-level western diplomat to meet the Hamas leader and prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh. In so doing, Raymond Johansen broke a year-long boycott and called on other governments to follow suit. Italy's foreign minister Massimo D'Alema then called Mr Haniyeh, just before the quartet of Middle East peacekeepers - the US, the EU, the UN and Russia - sat down to discuss its approach to the Palestinian unity government. On Sunday the US said it did not rule out meeting individual members of the government, although Washington will continue to support the aid embargo.

The Israeli cabinet is now looking isolated, basing its refusal to have anything to do with the unity government on the grounds that it failed to meet the three conditions, or more properly principles, laid down by the quartet: recognising Israel, renouncing terrorism and honouring previous agreements. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, went further, declaring he would only talk with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, on "quality of life" issues like checkpoints and crossings, rather than substantive issues, such as security and money.

Israel has painted itself into a corner over Hamas. By refusing to engage the political leadership of Hamas, it is refusing to test the simultaneous claims the Islamic movement makes to be both a negotiator for and liberator of the Palestinians. Hamas's armed wing, the Qassam Brigades, claimed responsibility yesterday for shooting an Israeli electricity worker near the Karni crossing in Gaza. They said the attack was in response to Israeli action in the West Bank and fell outside the terms of a four-month ceasefire. But by what right can the political wing of Hamas represent the Palestinian people by campaigning in government for the lifting of Israel's economic siege (of which the Karni crossing is a vital component) when its military wing is targeting Israeli civilians?

Forming a Palestinian unity government is a diplomatic achievement which caught Israel off guard. If it lasts, Palestinian unity is a potent source of international legitimacy. An Arab league meeting in Riyadh will increase the momentum the Saudis gained in Mecca by negotiating the deal between Fatah and Hamas. Israel has been hinting positively at Saudi Arabia's role but refuses to help it by engaging pragmatically with the Palestinians. Instead Israel will shun even independents such as the finance minister Salam Fayyad, whom the US secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, has already met.

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