Gapes in Astonishment

August 14, 2007

Mike Gapes, Labour MP for Guildford South, had an article entitled Time to talk to Hamas published in the Guardian on Monday. He is Chairman of the Commons cross-party Foreign Affairs Committee whose Eighth Report I had a dig at yesterday.

I thought the Committee’s criticisms of the UK Government, and Tony Blair’s policies in particular, were misguided and feel no differently about Gapes’s article. I imagine as Chairman of the Committee he bears the brunt of the responsibility for this exercise in fanciful self-delusion.

I restate the text of his article below in mauve italics, with my comments interspersed in blue.

“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.”

We often come across politicians making a big deal of the legitimacy of Hamas, on the basis that they were democratically elected, but I put forward two grounds on which to question that legitimacy. The first is that Hamas itself should not have been permitted to field candidates in the election given that their raison d’être is the destruction of a democratic internationally recognised state with UN membership (Israel) and pursue any means towards that end including violence towards civilians, in other words they meet the criteria to qualify as a terrorist organisation. The fact that they are popular in Gaza (and that there are question marks over the behaviour of most of the Palestinian factions anyway) does not change that.

Imagine if we allowed terrorist organisations to field candidates in the UK. Maybe the official Al Qaeda candidate might just be able to scrape the votes required to get in as MP at some inner London constituency or other at a bye-election, then use his or her MP status to promote all sorts of terrorist interests, possibly including putting civilian lives at risk of terrorist attacks. Would all those activities then be “legitimate” because the candidate had been democratically elected?

The second concern is that Hamas are not fundamentally supporters of democracy. Their aim is destruction of Israel and creation of a theocratic Palestinian state in the whole region based on Sharia law. They used the democratic process to their advantage because it was made available to them as an opportunity to take power.

They were less enthusiastic about democracy when the President Mahmoud Abbas challenged them, and resorted to violence – seizing Gaza via a military coup. What now their legitimate democratic credentials?

“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.”

Well I think the final sentence above just proves the point that the EU and US were right. The “unity government” can with hindsight clearly be seen for what it was – a desperate and doomed attempt to paper over irreconcilable differences between Hamas and Fatah. Not least that however united any unity government tries to present itself, the Hamas component remains implacably committed to a one-state solution where that one state is not Israel.

“The decision not to engage with Hamas after the Mecca agreement has proved to be counterproductive.”

To argue that this decision was “counterproductive” it is not sufficient to show that things went badly afterwards. You need to establish how the opposite course of action would have produced a better result. Let’s bear this in mind as we read on …

“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.”

What this fails to recognise is that ALL members of Hamas, whether you label them “extremists” or “pragmatists” have ALL signed up to the guiding principle of Hamas, which is complete and utter commitment to the destruction of Israel and creation of an Islamic state in its place. They ALL want this or they would not be in Hamas. Some may be more convinced that direct violence is the way (the “extremists”) and some may be contemplating more devious approaches (the “pragmatists”) but they are all targeting the same end position. It makes no difference how “pragmatic” any of them are – they will not settle for any end result where Israel is still in existence.

This then raises the question of how engaging with them can ever take us closer to a peaceful settlement based on a 2 state solution (or now maybe 3 state given the fragmentation of the Palestinians into Hamas ruling Gaza and Fatah ruling the West Bank).

The best that could be achieved might be a temporary truce, but given Hamas’s overriding principle, from their point of view a truce could make sense as a staging-post in a strategy aimed at the eventual destruction of Israel. Hamas are in for the long haul. Their Charter demands an end to Israel but if it takes them years then so be it. Ending the financial embargo in return for no more than a truce would put Hamas in a position to bide their time, now with funds to build up an armoury, with a view to renewed and increased military or terrorist actions against Israel at a later date. There are two ways for a temporary truce to end – peace or war.

“Such an approach will also help to peel Hamas away from Iran, its main international sponsor.”

That’s just a statement in thin air, with nothing whatever to back it up. It assumes that the “pragmatists” might be prepared to distance themselves from Iran but that’s pure speculation.

“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.”

This skirts the fundamental point that “an independent, democratic and viable Palestine living alongside a secure Israel” is not what Hamas are trying to achieve, so it is not clear how any engagement could achieve any genuine progress.

“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.”

The mere fact that anyone in Government thinks that there is such a thing as a “Hamas moderate” who might be party to a negotiation towards “an independent, democratic and viable Palestine living alongside a secure Israel” implies such a fundamental failure to understand the nature of the actors involved as to leave one in utter despair.

Gapes’s attitude seems to be “I know they say they want to destroy Israel, but you know I’m sure some of them are reasonable people. We’ll explain how lovely it will all be for the Palestinian people and I’m certain we can talk them round …”

No, Mike, you can’t and Tony can’t. Wake up! They eat, sleep and breathe the death of Israel. They would as soon put a bullet in your head as accept Israel as a permanent on-going state.

I get the impression that Mike Gapes is proud of his article and his Committee’s report. He should be thoroughly embarrassed and ashamed.


One comment

  1. In fairness to the Guardian they did publish this response today.

    Gapes gets much more credit for his efforts from the Israeli ambassador, Zvi Heifetz, than I gave him but then he obviously knows the man and recognises he is trying to help.

    I don’t doubt that Gapes means well, and the vast majority of us are more than prepared to go that extra mile to see peace in the region, but his recommendations were so ill-judged.

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