Terrorist groups sometimes abandon violence and sublimate their aims in constitutional politics. The old Official IRA renounced the armed struggle and transformed itself into the small, left-wing Workers’ Party.
Similarly, the meeting between Britain’s ambassador to Lebanon and a Hizbollah MP will have been intended by the Foreign Office to strengthen the political process.
The British government hopes that Hizbollah will be incorporated in its entirety in Lebanon’s politics and no longer practise terrorism. It is not an absurd idea: if diplomatic meetings save lives then they are worth a try. But the meeting is wrong in principle, and a serious misreading of Hizbollah’s aims.
The problem for democratic government in judging whether to talk to terrorists is that it is never clear in advance which groups can be reasoned with and which cannot.
Talking to groups that are interested not in remedying specific complaints but only in exposing the supposed weakness of democratic governments is likely to be counterproductive.
There is a particular danger in encouraging Hizbollah to imagine that its terrorist campaigns are gaining political traction. The organisation defines itself in Lebanese politics by its supposed heroic resistance to Israel.
Elevating Hizbollah to the status of a direct interlocutor with a Western government will merely reinforce that self-image.
In reality, Hizbollah must come to terms with the non-Islamist Shia forces and the non-Shia Muslims in Lebanon who have no wish to live under a state run on the principles of Iran’s regime.
The most prudent as well as principled course for Britain is to insist that Hizbollah make its accommodation with Lebanese politics and pluralism. Only then would there be even a pragmatic case for treating Hizbollah as a party to direct talks.