Painting Ourselves Into the Corner of PLO Non-recognition

Alastair Crooke

The Muslim News, February 24, 2006

Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbullah, spoke of the recent Hamas electoral victory to a huge gathering in Beirut to mark Ashura (commemoration of the martyrdom of the grandson of the Prophet, Imam al-Husayn). He termed it a potential revolution. In essence, he hailed the result as demonstration that if Muslims plan well, mobilize and are disciplined, they can prevail in spite of the concerted efforts of the West to ensure that Hamas should not win. Sayyid Nasrallah is right I believe to underline the importance of this outcome. It has the potential to change the Region – and for that reason alone – the West should reflect carefully on its response to it.

The Hamas win should not have surprised, but apparently it did. It is a reflection of Western self-imposed isolation from the principal currents of change in the Region that it was surprised; and Europe, or at least the European press, assumes wrongly that Hamas was surprised too. From this misperception I believe that the West so far has failed to recognize the extent of the changes taking shape.

Here commentators tend to describe the Hamas win as no more than a protest vote against Fatah ineffectiveness and corruption, but if they succeed, Hamas are intent on much more: They intend to up-end the familiar underpinnings of the political process.

By demanding that Israel and the International community should acknowledge the Palestinian narrative of ’48 and correspondingly affirm Palestinian national rights as the starting point to any process, Head of Hamas Political Bureau, Khalid Mishaal, is doing no more than asking that the signposts pointing out the destination of the political process must be clearly stated: that the Palestinian State take its shape on a basis of withdrawal from lands occupied in ’67 with Jerusalem as its capital. Former President Bill Clinton recognised clearly the perversity of beginning an open-ended incremental process, with parties of very different negotiating clout, which does not define where it is heading. Clinton’s response was his 10-point plan outlining the shape of a possible agreement. It was a first hesitant attempt to define Palestinian rights.Two weeks ago, as I and my colleague from Conflicts Forum, talked with Hamas supporters in a refugee camp in Lebanon, one of the refugees, a thoughtful man, commented on the Hamas win: “The vote,” he said, “reflected a final rupture in Palestinian hopes for a positive US or International role.” He meant, I believe, that whereas Fatah had relied on Palestinian “good behaviour” to persuade the US to balance the asymmetry of power in negotiations, Palestinians had abandoned such pretences. Hamas had argued that only self-reliance and maintaining the – albeit grudging – respect of Israelis could assure any hope of a just outcome. In short, the elections reflected acceptance that Hizbullah offers a better model of successful negotiations with Israel than does Fatah’s of enlistment of US support. Hamas, he argued, would be self-reliant and not look to the US or to Europe to solve its problems. More important is the inversion of the old Arafat injunction that Palestinian institutions can only be built after the State has been established. Hamas has been working on a comprehensive reform and institution-building plan. It envisages the establishment of a judicial system, the reform of the security services and the placing of the Legislative Assembly at the heart of a system of transparency and accountability.

This aspect, the zeal to give Palestinians effective and competent governance as the means to a Palestinian State – rather than as its outcome – together with the emphasis of governing in the interests of all Palestinians, is at the heart of the Hamas revolution. I believe that a competent and effective Palestinian leadership, speaking with a fresh mandate and broad support for a national policy, will give back to Palestinians the initiative. It will be hard to ignore.

Nonetheless, ignoring the substance of the Hamas platform exactly is what may happen – at least for a period. A majority of Israelis, however, according to two recently published polls, believe that talking with Hamas is inevitable, and that Israel should talk regardless of whether it forms the Authority or not. Yet Europe, apparently led by Germany on this occasion, seems determined to paint itself into a corner on the recognition issue. In a sense, Europe seems intent on being more Israeli than Israelis themselves who evince a solid pragmatism in terms of their understanding that talking with the democratically elected Government is inevitable. We also seem to be losing sight of the fact that Mishaal, in calling for recognition of Palestinian rights, is asking of us little more than to put into practical effect the terms of UN resolutions 242 and 338 on which European policy, in theory, is founded!

The stakes for Europe, however, are higher than just the risk of stasis in the Israeli Palestinian conflict – serious enough as that is: By taking the vanguard in the campaign of isolation for the Movement that now enjoys greater legitimacy than probably any other government or ruling movement in the Muslim World, we risk broadcasting a message of hostility to Muslims everywhere. To do this at a time when Muslims see the European “3”, Germany, Britain and France, in the lead in referring Iran to the Security Council may lead many to conclude that Europe is lurching in the direction of confrontation with Islam. We should reflect carefully on the consequences both at home and in our neighbouring Muslim societies before allowing this perception to take root.

I believe, despite the current spate of stories of plans to de-stabilise an incoming Palestinian Government or to “starve” the Palestinians into demanding fresh elections and the return of Fatah, that wiser advice will prevail. Such actions will only strengthen Hamas in the Palestinian and Arab World and will be counter-productive to European interests.

There will be many in the US who will understand this too. If Hamas can hold back, as it has been doing so far, at hitting back at Western demonisation of the movement; if it allows its actions as a Government to speak for themselves, then history tells us that, whatever the initial huffing and puffing, Europe will have to engage. It was not long ago after all that a former British Prime Minister demonised another leader of a popular movement as nothing more than a “terrorist”. That of course was Nelson Mandela.

This article first appeared in The Muslim News.

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