By Mike Gapes, the Labour Co-operative MP for Ilford South and chairman of the foreign affairs select committee (THE GUARDIAN, 13/08/07):
A year after the end of the Lebanon war, prospects for peace in the Middle East remain distant. Diplomacy in the region has never been easy, but the challenges now in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, set against the backdrop of rising Iranian influence, are particularly daunting. These are the critical issues confronted in a report published today by the Commons foreign affairs committee.The most pressing, and demanding, matter for Gordon Brown’s cabinet is the Palestinian territories. The appointment of Tony Blair as envoy for the Quartet (US, Russia, EU and UN) presents an opportunity to take a new approach.
Hamas was democratically elected as the majority party in the Palestinian legislative council in January 2006. As a consequence of its failure to explicitly endorse the three Quartet principles – non-violence, recognition of Israel and commitment to previous agreements – it has faced a boycott ever since. Though a Hamas-Fatah national unity government was established at Mecca in March, the EU and US deemed that Hamas had not gone far enough. In June Hamas carried out a “coup” against the secular Fatah to take control of the Gaza Strip. The decision not to engage with Hamas after the Mecca agreement has proved to be counterproductive. Hamas is not a homogenous organisation. It is an Islamist movement that includes more pragmatic and more extreme elements. The current policy helped isolate the pragmatists. This must be reversed. Ways must be found to engage politically with more moderate elements to help move Hamas towards the three Quartet principles and become a true partner for peace in the Middle East. Such an approach will also help to peel Hamas away from Iran, its main international sponsor.
The question of how best to engage with Hamas is a delicate one. The arrival of Blair as the Quartet’s special envoy may provide the answer. It is safe to say that he is no friend of extreme Islamists. His appointment was warmly welcomed in both Israel and the US. Just as the ardently anti-communist Richard Nixon was best placed to restart America’s relationship with China in the 1970s, Blair may well be in the ideal political position to make a bold move by talking to Hamas. But Blair’s current mandate, of focusing on Palestinian institution-building, makes it difficult for him to do this. It should be broadened to include explicitly the tough political issues facing Israel and the Palestinians, the most fundamental being progress towards the goal of a two-state solution: an independent, democratic and viable Palestine living alongside a secure Israel.
The road map for peace, the international plan to bring about this outcome, has become an irrelevance in the broader dynamic of the Arab-Israeli conflict. A new effort is required to re-energise the peace process. The British government should support the special envoy in persuading Israel to move towards formal negotiations with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, on the vital issues including borders and the status of Jerusalem. In all discussions, it is important that Gaza is not left behind and isolated, not least in terms of providing humanitarian assistance to the suffering population.
In his diaries, Alastair Campbell recounts a meeting with Sinn Féin at No 10. He tells how Tony Blair referred to a choice – despair and violence, or peace and progress: “We were all taking risks, but they were risks worth taking.” With the stakes so high in the Middle East, it is again time to take risks. Inviting moderates from Hamas to the table would be a good start.