Time to Judge Palestine on Its Results
Time to Judge Palestine on Its Results
Planning Ahead: How the US May Recover Its Diplomatic Standing at the UN After the Gaza War
Planning Ahead: How the US May Recover Its Diplomatic Standing at the UN After the Gaza War
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 3 minutes

Time to Judge Palestine on Its Results

For years, terrorist groups have fetched up in government. Their access to respectability, from Israel to Kenya to South Africa to Ireland, has been part of the political settlement of one dispute after another. Democratic politicians gag at some of the consequences. But when the stars align, we all have to put our sensibilities on hold and act. I did not myself find it easy to discuss Northern Ireland policing with Sinn Féin leaders who had been prominent in the IRA, the terrorist gang that had killed some of my friends and many hundreds of others. All of which brings me to Hamas.

Hamas began life as the Palestinian branch, in the Gaza Strip and on the West Bank, of the Muslim brotherhood in Egypt and Jordan. At the outset, it focused on politics and welfare. It was radicalised and turned to terror, including suicide bombing, in response to the occupation of Palestine and the uprising and to its battle for influence with Yassir Arafat’s Fatah. Hamas has been responsible for some appalling acts of terrorism.

In 2006, after pressure from the US and Europe, democratic elections were held in Palestine. Hamas was not barred from standing. To the astonishment of the west’s diplomatic and intelligence services, Hamas won a clear victory. It then – this being what happens in democracies – formed a government, with which Israel, Europe and the US refused to deal. The “moderate” Arab world (as we like to call it) also initially shook its head in disapproval.

One saving grace was that Mahmoud Abbas had already been elected president of the Palestinian Authority to fill Arafat’s shoes. Arafat, as Condoleezza Rice, US secretary of state, frequently observed, was “the problem” in the Middle East. He was not a partner for peace. But now we had a moderate, a man who could be welcomed to the White House and with whom we could presumably do business. Except that we did not. The fact that he had a Hamas-dominated government meant, it was argued, that there was still no Palestinian partner. So we blackballed Hamas, cut off much of the assistance that had kept the Palestinian Authority going and provided humanitarian financial aid through elaborate and not very effective back channels.

One of the few success stories of the past few years in Palestine was the establishment of a finance ministry with a trusted former International Monetary Fund official, Salam Fayyad, running it. It was competent and clean. Before the European Union and others started paying money into his treasury account, with IMF and World Bank stamps of approval, money to the Palestinians had been subject to little control. Since these payments were stopped, because of Hamas, money has dribbled away unaccountably.

The Saudi Arabian government brokered a welcome deal in Mecca last month between Hamas and Fatah. These two parties are putting together a national unity government. What is the US and European reaction? We still refuse to deal with a government in Ramallah unless Hamas meets conditions, including a specific recognition of the state of Israel (more than is done by a number of Arab governments).

It is high time to get real if we want to avoid Palestine sliding into anarchy. We should judge the new government, including Hamas, by results.

First, will it impose a ceasefire and crack down on rocket attacks on Israel by Islamic Jihad? Second, will it work to secure the release of the captured Israeli soldier, Corporal Gilad Shalit, as part of a prisoner release deal? Third, will Hamas leaders show they are not intent on turning Palestine into an Islamic fundamentalist state by distorting educational and social policies in ministries they control? Fourth, will they accept that any final deal negotiated by Mr Abbas with Israel (which would inevitably include a commitment to Israel’s right to exist in peace) will be binding on them if supported by a national Palestinian referendum?

To continue a blockade of Palestine while Hamas is sharing in government, with US banking sanctions that bite, runs three serious risks. First, we would be telling the Saudis and the other friendly Arab states that have supported the Mecca agreement to keep their noses out of the issue. Yet we presumably want them playing a constructive role on the US’s and Europe’s side at a time when our own prestige in the region is at rock-bottom.

Second, we would discourage Hamas from taking a more moderate non-violent road – the opposite of what the US correctly pressed Britain to do with Sinn Féin.

Third, we would be conniving at the destruction of the Palestinian Authority. We would destroy the fabric of government on the West Bank and Gaza. Palestine would become no more than two walled refugee camps. Meanwhile, we would presumably go on turning a blind eye to the development of Israeli settlements, particularly on the eastern outskirts of Jerusalem, which risk making a viable two-state solution impossible.

I suppose that the group (the US, EU, Russia, the United Nations) charged with steering the peace process, known as the Quartet, will play on. Unfortunately the noise it makes sounds more and more like the Dead March from Handel’s Saul.

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