Thursday, 19 February 2009

TIME TO REMOVE HAMAS FROM 'TERROR' LISTS

Europe opens covert talks with ‘blacklisted’ Hamas

By Anne Penketh,
Diplomatic Editor
The Independent, Thurs, 19 Feb 2009

European nations have opened a direct dialogue with Hamas as the US
intensifies the search for Middle East peace under Barack Obama.

In the first meeting of its kind, two French senators travelled to
Damascus two weeks ago to meet the leader of the Palestinian Islamist
faction, Khaled Meshal, The Independent has learned. Two British MPs
met three weeks ago in Beirut with the Hamas representative in
Lebanon, Usamah Hamdan. “Far more people are talking to Hamas than
anyone might think,” said a senior European diplomat. “It is the
beginning of something new – although we are not negotiating.”

Mr Hamdan said yesterday that since the end of last year, MPs from
Sweden, the Netherlands and three other western European nations,
which he declined to identify, had consulted with Hamas
representatives.

“They believe they made a mistake by blacklisting Hamas,” he said,
referring to the EU decision in 2003 to add the political wing of the
movement to its list of terrorist organisations. “Now they know they
have to talk to Hamas.”

Political contacts with Hamas are banned under the rules of the
international Quartet for Middle East peace – which groups the US,
the EU, Russia and the UN – on the grounds that the Palestinian
faction remains committed to the destruction of Israel. The
international community insists that the ban will only be lifted once
the Islamists agree to recognise Israel and renounce violence. But
the policy, set out in 2006 following the Hamas victory in
Palestinian elections, has been called into question since the
three-week war in Gaza which is ruled by Hamas.

Diplomats insisted that the lawmakers’ contacts with Hamas were at
their own initiative, although they are presumed to have reported
back to governments. The British MPs who went to Beirut “were not
engaged in back channel or officially sanctioned talks,” said a
Foreign Office spokesman.

The EU backs Egyptian-mediated efforts to secure reconciliation
between Hamas and its Fatah rivals as part of a ceasefire agreement
between Hamas and Israel. Palestinian unity is being encouraged as a
prerequisite for a two-state solution.

But Mr Meshal told the French senators that Palestinian unity was
“the most difficult issue”, according to a source familiar with the
talks. “Meshal said the Palestinian Authority [led by the President
Mahmoud Abbas, of Fatah] no longer represents anything,” said the
source. Hamas is “convinced that the Arab street is with them”.

Hamas’s main backer, Syria, is also brimming with confidence after
the three-week war failed to deal a knock-out blow to its allies in
Gaza. The Syrian government senses an opportunity under Mr Obama to
end the isolation imposed by the Bush presidency.

Syria’s President, Bashir Assad, has granted several interviews to
Western media in recent weeks in which he has expressed the hope of
improved relations with the US. John Kerry, the head of the Senate
foreign relations committee who has advocated the return of a US
ambassador to Syria, is due in Damascus at the weekend.

The Syrian ambassador to London, Sami Khiyami, said: “We expect
another ambassador. It is not going to take a long time. America,
like Europe, understands that the gate to having a political
influence in the Middle East can only be achieved through Syria.”

But Middle East analysts play down expectations that EU – or US
policy – regarding Hamas is about to change. Two major uncertainties
remain: the approach of the Obama administration and the contours of
the future Israeli government which could be led by the hardliner
Benjamin Netanyahu.

Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, said Mr Obama would
be making a “huge mistake” if he decided to open direct talks with
Hamas. Such a move would “undermine the Palestinian leadership that
wants to make peace with Israel”.

He said there had been progress in indirect peace talks between
Israel and Syria, and that Mr Netanyahu could well decide to embark
down the track which is “somewhat riper”. But “the Syrians are not
about to sign on the dotted line” insofar as they would come under
pressure to break with their strategic allies, Hamas, Hizbollah and
Iran, he added.

Mr Khiyami said the Israelis would have to choose between
negotiations or future confrontation. “If they choose the first
option they will find people ready to negotiate under the umbrella of
the Arab initiative. If they choose the second, we are not
responsible anymore for any violence that can happen in the Middle
East.”

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