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Hamas Success at Polls Poses Dilemma for British Foreign Policy

June 20, 2005
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The recent admission by Foreign Secretary Jack Straw that British diplomats held talks with local Hamas officials may have angered Israel, but it hints at a wider change in British policy toward the terrorist group. The British government reportedly is weighing sweeping changes to its Israeli-Palestinian strategy in response to the changing profile of Hamas, which increasingly is gaining political ground — though it refuses to disarm or accept the existence of a Jewish state.

Hamas won control of 30 out of 84 local councils in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in municipal elections held in May. Similar developments in Lebanon, where Hezbollah has won 33 seats in the 128-member Parliament, have added urgency to the U.K. policy review.

While Straw himself supports including Hamas’ military wing on the U.K.- and E.U.-wide list of terrorist organizations — though there remains no ban on the group’s “political” side — debate is growing over whether the fundamentalist Islamic Hamas movement, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, can evolve into a mainstream political group.

Unlike the Palestinians’ ruling Fatah Party, which is widely perceived as corrupt and inefficient and whose leaders accrued immense personal benefits from the Oslo Accords, Hamas generally is seen as politically clean and honest. It runs an extensive network of soup kitchens, schools and orphanages.

The announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that parliamentary elections scheduled for July would be postponed was widely viewed as an attempt to stave off a possible Hamas triumph at the polls.

The group’s growing electoral success has posed what Straw described in a radio interview ahead of a trip to the region as a “dilemma” for British diplomats.

“In the occupied territories it is de rigueur, it is required, that if a diplomat of whatever level goes into a town, they go and talk to the mayor,” Straw said.

“What happened on two occasions — just two occasions — is that such discussions have taken place,” Straw said. “But on each of those occasions, our staff have spelled out to the elected official” the British position “of no dealings with Hamas as an organization as long as it continues to support violence and the destruction of Israel.”

Hours after Straw’s statements, Palestinians fired missiles into Jewish settlements in the Gaza Strip, killing two Palestinian workers and a Thai worker. More rockets were fired into the Israeli town of Sderot.

The renewed tension underlined the threat posed by rejectionist Palestinian groups. U.S. officials have said that Hamas’ political success is irrelevant and that it remains a terrorist group as long as it is preparing suicide bombers as well as electoral candidates.

But the British government may be drawing on its own past experience.

“We went through years of saying we wouldn’t talk to the IRA, but in the end we did,” pointed out Lord Timothy Garden, security and defense expert at the Chatham House think tank. “I’m not surprised, from our experience with terrorists at home and insurgents abroad, that the British government is trying to engage. There is more advantage in engaging than in isolating.

“In general, British foreign policy is very pragmatic,” Garden said. “It looks for opportunities to help things along, rather than taking absolute stands that are difficult to back down from. You can see it in our negotiations with Iran over their nuclear enrichment program, which tends to be criticized in some U.S. circles as being the soft European attitude.”

With Hamas’ operational capability severely weakened by Israeli anti-terrorism actions such as targeted killings of leading terrorists, some analysts suggest now is the time to seize the opportunity to try to coax Hamas into the mainstream.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshal already has proposed “a PLO in which Fatah no longer has a monopoly.”

While Britain is unlikely to support direct negotiations or even open communication with Hamas, it may lean toward low-rank, exploratory discussions to understand changing dynamics within the group and assess whether direct contact would be feasible or productive.

Israeli political scientist Menachem Klein of Bar Ilan University points to previous, unofficial British contacts with Hamas through Alistair Crooke, a former intelligence agent assigned to the Middle East as a security adviser to the European Union. Crooke held talks with Hamas and other terrorist groups three years ago.

The Israeli government and public opinion do not accept the idea that Hamas could change, but Klein believes there is a growing international consensus that Hamas is now part of the system.

“Officially Hamas is only involved on the local level, though they are preparing to run in the general election — and if they achieve, as they are expect to, 25 to 40 percent of the vote, they will be a minority that no one can disregard,” he warned.

That presents a dilemma “not just for the U.K. but for the international community and Israel,” said a British Foreign Office spokesman. Still, the spokesman insisted that no more meetings with Hamas were planned “at this time.”

Israel’s displeased response to Straw’s comments was predictable: U.K. contacts with Hamas can be seen not only as consorting with a terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction but also as weakening the legitimacy of Abbas and the Palestinian Authority.

But Klein does not think Straw’s admission will spark major tensions between Israel and Britain, believing that Israel trusts the U.K. leadership far more than it does that of other European states.

Britain is also held in high esteem by Palestinian groups.

“Hamas wants to open dialogue with the West, but not with Israel. Therefore, talking to the U.K. government, which has an open door to Sharon’s office, can be a vehicle to transfer messages between Hamas and the Israeli leadership,” he said.

Klein points to the situation in the 1980s. Though the PLO was officially boycotted as a terrorist group, the CIA maintained a channel with PLO officials in Beirut, and the late PLO chief Yasser Arafat tried to transfer messages via Norway, which an Israeli ally.

“When an organization is not ready to talk or two sides aren’t mature enough to talk, they need a third party,” said Klein, who believes that could be Britain.

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