A Matter of Time? European Politicians Are Waking Up to the Idea That the Isolation of Hamas Has Backfired. A Change of Wind from Washington Could Break the Deadlock

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Without Hamas there will be no peace between the Palestinians and Israel." It seems self-evident, a matter of logic: Hamas is the party elected to government by a plurality of the Palestinian people, and one of the main armed parties in the Arab-Israeli conflict. A peace deal without them would be no peace deal at all.

But in Europe, the Palestinian Authority's biggest aid donor and the western political bloc in greatest proximity to the conflict, this truism hasn't had much play, until now. The European Union (EU) was one of the bodies that, since Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in 2006, has imposed a boycott of the organisation, and helped to enforce the Israeli blockade of the Gaza Strip after Hamas' semi-coup of 2007, resulting in a humanitarian disaster.

However, there now exists amongst European policymakers a kernel of support for the idea that Europe must now deal equitably with Hamas if it is to be a fair broker in the Middle East Peace Process.

The basic document governing EU policy toward Hamas is a Common Council Position adopted shortly after the attacks on New York in 2001, which lists organisations considered as being "terrorist". Hamas' political wing--as opposed to the military Ezz Al Din Al Qassam Brigades--was added to the EU list in 2003.

In addition, the International Quartet for Middle East Peace (the EU, the US, Russia and the UN) bans members from contact with Hamas on the grounds that its charter calls for the destruction of Israel. Before any face-to-face can take place, the Quartet says, Hamas must renounce violence, recognise Israel, and recognise previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. Talking to Hamas is, in short, against the rules.

However, in recent months, individual European politicians have broken these rules, driven in part by outrage in their home countries at what was seen as the grossly disproportionate response of Israel to Hamas' rocket fire from Gaza.

In February, two French senators reportedly met with Hamas' Political Bureau chief Khaled Meshaal in Damascus. Hamas claimed parliamentarians from Sweden, the Netherlands and other European countries had met their members since the war in Gaza broke out.

In March, British member of parliament Clare Short and a number of other parliamentarians met Meshaal in the Syrian capital in an effort to prod London into changing its disavowal of dialogue with the movement.

"I believe that our Government's refusal to talk with Hamas is a democratic outrage and makes peace in the Middle East more difficult," she said.

The undercurrent to much of what Short said in Damascus was that the British government's policy toward Hamas and the Middle East conflict was contrary to the approach that it used in Northern Ireland, which was to talk directly to Sinn Fein (which was to the Irish Republican Army what Khaled Meshaal's political bureau is to the rocket-launching brigades in Gaza) without preconditions. The reasoning goes, why should the same approach to conflict resolution not be used in the Arab-Israeli conflict?

In Germany, which for obvious reasons has historically been loath to aggravate the Israelis, senior centre-left politicians have also been calling for direct talks in a bid to push the conflict out of stalemate.

One of them, Gernot Erler, a minister in the Auswartiges Amt, the German foreign ministry, announced earlier this year that he advocated speaking directly with both Hamas and the Taliban in Afghanistan, saying, "when you exclude (dialogue) from the outset, conflict is empirically more difficult to solve".

The sentiment has been voiced by other individuals concerned with conflict resolution in a wider context. A group of former peace negotiators including former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, former EU envoy to Bosnia Paddy Ashdown and ex-Cambodia negotiator Gareth Evans have all declared publicly that "the policy of isolating Hamas had failed". …