Analysis: EU wants to talk to Hamas

By Daniella Peled, February 5, 2009

So there is “no ambiguity” in US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s position toward Hamas. The same, however, cannot be said for other international players, whose attitude to the militant group is getting ever more creative. And European equivocation, according to Israeli officials, is reaching an extremely concerning point.

An indication can be found in the monthly statements of the General Affairs and External Relations Council, where EU Foreign Ministers discuss topical issues and produce a declaration on Israel-Palestine.

However dry this may sound, it is seen as crucial in Jerusalem as an indication of current EU thinking.

Their last proclamation two weeks ago contained the following sentence: “The Council strongly encourages inter-Palestinian reconciliation behind President Mahmoud Abbas which is key for peace, stability, and development and supports the mediation efforts of Egypt and the Arab League in this respect.”

An apparently anodyne call for Palestinian unity? Not according to one Israeli government source. “This statement was one of the worst ever from our perspective,” he said. “There is no mention of the three Quartet demands on Hamas — renouncing violence, recognising Israel and adhering to past agreements. So according to the EU, Hamas doesn’t need to conform to them to be a legitimate partner.”

Jerusalem suspects the French of leading these efforts. But the Quartet — the US, the UN, the EU and Russia —has never been united.

Moscow has long been happy to meet Hamas. And listen to what the Quartet envoy, Tony Blair, has to say.

Once, he was adamant: Hamas needed to accept Quartet conditions before any talks. But he has shifted balance, insisting that Hamas must be part of the process — with the caveat that they first need to accept international demands.

Why this change in direction? Partly frustration at the long stalemate since the 2006 Hamas election victory and subsequent Gaza takeover. But also the fact that Israel’s three-week assault weakened Hamas militarily but strengthened it politically. Pragmatists — of whom Blair is one — recognise that a new approach is needed. It is also noteable that a majority of the Israeli public supports talks with Hamas.

But direct negotiations with Hamas are unlikely anytime soon. There are concerns that any approach to Hamas will weaken Fatah’s Mahmoud Abbas. Hamas are not yet trusted as a credible or rational partner. And, crucially, the Obama administration needs to lead the way — an unlikely proposition with Hillary staying quite so hawkish.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010