British Prime Minister Gordon Brown promised the U.S. Congress on Wednesday to "work tirelessly with you for peace in the Middle East." But Britain clearly has some ideas of its own about how to move the process forward, and those ideas clash with the orthodoxies still in place in Washington. Even as Brown spoke on Capitol Hill, his government announced that it has scrapped its boycott of Hizballah, and would hold talks with the Iran-backed Lebanese Shi'ite movement, whose militia is on its and Washington's list of terrorist organizations. British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell explained that "we have reconsidered the position ... in light of more positive developments within Lebanon," citing the formation last July of a unity government in Lebanon in which Hizballah and its allies have effective veto power.
The formation of that Lebanese government, of course, sealed the defeat of the Bush Administration's efforts to stand up a pro-Western government in Beirut that excluded parties allied with Syria and Iran. The U.S. strategy foundered on the fact that Hizballah and its allies enjoy wide backing in the communities from which they hail and have the military muscle to back them up in a fight. London has simply acknowledged that Hizballah is an intractable political fact in Lebanon, and therefore plans to engage it in an effort to encourage the group to pursue a more pragmatic course. (See pictures of Hizballah.)
Britain's decision on Hizballah raises the obvious question for the more pressing matter of Israeli-Palestinian relations: Hamas, too, is an intractable political fact in the Palestinian territories, having established its primacy via both the ballot and (in the case of Gaza) the bullet. The U.S.-led boycott of the organization in the hopes of promoting peace with the Western-backed moderate Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is looking increasingly fanciful given Hamas' strength and the marginalization of Abbas among his own people. Britain appears cognizant of that reality. While Rammell stressed that Britain was not standing down from its refusal to talk directly with Hamas, it has begun to encourage others to do so on its behalf. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said last week in Cairo, "Egypt has been nominated ... to speak to Hamas on behalf of the Arab League but actually on behalf of the whole world. Others speak to Hamas. That's the right thing to do, and I think we should let the Egyptians take this forward."The need to integrate Hamas into the peacemaking framework, as difficult as that may be given the barriers set by the U.S. and the Europeans, is fast becoming conventional wisdom among Middle East peacemakers. Former Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, Israel's chief negotiator at Camp David in 2000, was among those who publicly declared two weeks ago, "Whether we like it or not, Hamas will not go away. Since its victory in democratic elections in 2006, Hamas has sustained its support in Palestinian society despite attempts to destroy it through economic blockades, political boycotts and military incursions. This approach is not working; a new strategy must be found."
If the Obama Administration's public statements are to be taken at face value, however, Washington is not yet convinced. The Administration has made clear that it will not talk to Hamas unless the Islamists are prepared to make a public declaration, as demanded by the Middle East "Quartet" the U.S., the European Union, Russia and the U.N. recognizing Israel's right to exist, renouncing violence and abiding by past agreements negotiated by the Palestine Liberation Organization. While Hamas leaders have long signaled a willingness to engage on pragmatic lines, seeking long-term truces with Israel and expressing support for the creation of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, it's highly unlikely that the organization would declare what it would deem a symbolic surrender. Abbas recognized Israel, Hamas leaders say, and where did it get him?
The immediate question isn't so much whether the U.S. would talk to Hamas but whether it would follow the Bush Administration's example by trying to torpedo a Palestinian government that included Hamas. In a CNN interview on Tuesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appeared to suggest that the U.S. would refuse to work with such a government unless Hamas made the declarations previously demanded by the Quartet. "In the absence of Hamas agreeing to the principles that have been adopted by such a broad range of international actors, I don't see that we or they or anyone could deal with Hamas," Clinton said, adding that the organization was "not only a terrorist group, but increasingly a client of Iran."
Taken at face value, that message could be read as a warning to Abbas, who has made himself almost entirely dependent on U.S. backing, to stay out of a unity government that Egypt is trying to broker unless Hamas cries uncle. But there's no reason to imagine that Hamas will comply, having weathered an 18-month economic siege and a 22-day Israeli military campaign to dislodge it and having every reason to believe it will defeat Abbas in Palestinian elections, due to be held next year.
Ben-Ami and his co-authors including leading British diplomats Chris Patten and Paddy Ashdown, veteran peace negotiators from South Africa and Ireland; and Alvaro De Soto, who had been the U.N. envoy to the Quartet explicitly warned that the "Quartet conditions imposed on Hamas set an unworkable threshold from which to commence negotiations" and argued that "Hamas must recognize Israel as part of a permanent solution, but it is a diplomatic process and not ostracization that will lead them there."
Palestinian reconciliation, as President Obama's Middle East envoy Senator George Mitchell has acknowledged, is essential to the immediate stabilization of the situation through a cease-fire and the reconstruction of Gaza. Reports from the region suggest that Washington has been tacitly encouraging the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks, much to the alarm of Israel's Prime Ministerdesignate, Benjamin Netanyahu, who has demanded the continuation of the boycott of Hamas and any Palestinian government that includes it. But without taking the more pragmatic British approach to politically popular radical groups in the region, the Obama Administration could find itself quickly paralyzed by a Middle East deadlock it has vowed to break.