A futile attempt to imprison Palestinian extremism

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This week I experienced a jolt of optimism. On the eve of Tony Blair’s first meeting with the so-called Quartet as its special envoy to the Middle East, George W. Bush unveiled plans for an autumn peace conference. Maybe Mr Bush, I thought, has decided to seize the last chance for his presidency. A peace deal between Israelis and Palestinians would not erase from the history books the legacy of Iraq. It would add a powerful competing chapter.

How desperately the Middle East needs a new narrative. I listened recently to an experienced, and sober, diplomat enumerate the multiplying dangers. His latest visit to the region had left him feeling that the smallest spark would set another fire.

The bloodshed, sectarian and ideological, in Iraq needed little explanation. Set alongside it was the threat that Iran could start a nuclear arms race in the region and break the international non-proliferation regime. More immediately, there was a danger of renewed fighting in Lebanon, where both Syria and Iran were still acting to destabilise the government. Another flare-up with Israel was possible at any moment: last summer’s war had left Hizbollah down but far from out.

We should add to this dangerous swirl, the diplomat said, the sharpening tensions in most Arab states caused by Iran’s bid for regional hegemony. Tehran’s capacity to radicalise the Arab street, graphically underlined by the Lebanon war, was seen as a rising threat to regimes from Saudi Arabia to Egypt. The leader of one, pro-western Arab regime, my interlocutor added, had described Iran as an “octopus with its tentacles in every part of the region”. All this before you reach the smouldering fires on the West Bank and Gaza.

You can see why a US administration whose power and prestige have been so damaged might see strategic advantage in a new effort to douse the tinder in Palestine. True, Mr Bush has thus far engaged only sporadically and inattentively in the Middle East. Now, though, the harsh judgment of history beckons.

For all that it is badly weakened, the US remains the indispensable player. Thus far, Mr Bush’s record has been dismal. He reminded us again this week that he is the first US president explicitly to endorse a two-state solution. Yet almost everything he has done, or not done, has gone in the opposite direction.

The inside story was set out recently by another diplomat. The leaked end-of-mission report written by Alvaro de Soto, the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, on his departure from his post two months ago makes for bleak reading.

The tale that Mr de Soto recounts – one echoed in many European capitals – is one in which all attempts to match demands on the Palestinians to live up to their commitments under the road map with pressure on Israel to do likewise have failed.

The roadblock has been in Washington – in an administration that has forsaken evenhandedness to fall in behind the Israeli government. Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state charged with resuscitating peace talks, has operated on the shortest of White House leashes.

Mr de Soto is predictably dismissed by US hawks as another of those wishy-washy UN liberals who are soft on terrorism. In fact, he is as plain as could be in his condemnation of the aims of the Palestinian Hamas movement and its murderous attacks on Israelis. No one says the Palestinians are blameless.

Nor, though, are the Israelis or the international community. Ever since Hamas’s election victory last year, the US-led policy of the Quartet has been counter-productive. The effort to isolate Hamas has instead left it in control of a besieged and bleeding Gaza and is radicalising ever larger swaths of the Palestinian population.

This policy has been rubber-stamped by a subservient European Union and by a timid UN. Russia, the fourth member of the Quartet, has largely kept quiet. I presume Moscow sees the damage the US is inflicting on itself.

Mr Bush, I thought as I turned to the detail of his speech, must have come to the same realisation. My optimism was fleeting. Sure, there were token admonitions to Israel to stop the expansion of settlements and loosen its stranglehold on Palestinian life. Yes, US money is flowing to the new government appointed by President Mahmoud Abbas. We are told the Palestinians will soon see the advantages of supporting Mr Abbas’s Fatah movement.

US policy, in other words, still deludes itself that Hamas can be marginalised out of existence. To that purpose more than a million Palestinians will remain locked in the prison that is now Gaza. Such collective punishment will serve only the cause of the extremists.

By now, one supposes, Mr Blair will have read Mr de Soto’s report. Some will have told him that it is too bleak in its conclusions. There are glimpses of light. Rising Iranian power has concentrated the minds of Arab leaders: television images from Gaza are a gift to Iran.

The report will have reminded Mr Blair of the fate of his predecessor. James Wolfensohn was also pressed on the Quartet by the US. His role, like Mr Blair’s, was to reinvigorate the economy and rebuild political institutions. All went smoothly until he began to insist that Israel loosen its grip on the Palestinian territories. Mr Blair starts with a stronger hand because of his closeness to Mr Bush. But there have already been signs that the US state department is anxious to rein in his remit.

Mr Blair’s contribution must be to persuade Mr Bush of the obvious. A peace deal that at once safeguards, as it must, Israel’s security and meets the legitimate aspirations of Palestinians can be struck only if the radicals are drawn in.

That means Mr Blair must talk to Hamas. There is a distinction here between talking and negotiating. The former is needed to see whether there are grounds for the latter. It is quite possible that such talks would founder. But the Quartet cannot continue to demand of Hamas as a precondition for negotiations concessions that would naturally form part of such negotiations.

Analogies are always imperfect. But Mr Blair understands the principle well from Northern Ireland. IRA terrorists were never asked to recognise Northern Ireland’s right to exist; merely to accept the fact of its existence. The IRA’s renunciation of violence came towards the end rather than the beginning of a decade-long process. The role of intelligence agencies is to know their enemies, that of diplomats to talk to them. I wish Mr Blair well in his new, diplomatic career.

philip.stephens@ft.com

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