At a time of unprecedented change in the Arab world, it is crucial for Europe to reassess its strategy in the region and engage with a variety of actors that have previously been shunned. The European Union has the opportunity to become a leader. Most importantly, the various upheavals that have occurred in the Arab Spring have completely shuffled the cards with regards to the actors involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The road to peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians is linked to creating a strong and unified voice among the Palestinians, and this can only be achieved through the legitimization of Hamas as a political actor.
The EU should immediately engage in direct covert preliminary discussions with members of the Hamas political bureau and the consultative council without counterproductive preconditions. The aim should be to try to discreetly develop deeper relationships with leaders in Gaza and the West Bank rather than those in exile, as they might be psychologically more prepared for an end to the conflict. This would show Hamas that the EU recognizes them and is willing to become a trusted partner.
The meetings should not be hosted in Egypt, Qatar, or any Arab country that has deep vested interests in the conflict. A suitable location could be the French military base in Djibouti. Choosing a neutral ground which is not too far from the region would enable the EU to avoid outside interference and provide adequate security.
Fatah should be informed that the EU fully supports the adhesion of Hamas to the PLO and new elections, and is willing to help by even hosting a real reconciliation summit at an emblematic location, such as Marseille for example, where the large French population of Arab descent might be a great tool in showing support and enthusiasm during a public press conference. The EU throwing in its full diplomatic weight behind the reconciliation process would be reassuring to both parties and help the burgeoning talks of Hamas joining the PLO.
There is no doubt that Hamas’ violent element is a deterrent to engaging in dialogue, but it is not abnormal either. Western powers as well as Israel ended up talking to the PLO when it was also engaging in terrorist activities. There are always worst actors that can emerge, and the examples of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad or Salafi extremists operating in Gaza and challenging Hamas’ authority are reasons why it is necessary to communicate with a party who has enough power and legitimacy to understand the political consequences of its actions and has an interest in being somewhat pragmatic.
It is important to look beyond the seemingly-radical framework of Hamas: it is a rational organization that is willing to compromise. Its leaders have often said that they are willing to engage in an indefinite truce with Israel and accept the idea of a sovereign Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. It is crucial to be able to separate classic rhetoric and actual polices in order for citizens not to be scared by propaganda.
There are clearly many unknowns and the roles of various spoilers can be terrible: The risk of Israel, the U.S., or Arab states finding out and discrediting the meetings is high; public opinion might not be able to see the reason for such an engagement without any tangible benefits; and the presence of opponents to the deal amongst Fatah cadres could derail the whole process and expose the EU’s involvement at a time when Hamas is still considered a terrorist organization.
Nevertheless, the quest for a resolution to this conflict is not only necessary but also morally just, and its importance overtakes any possible difficulties because it is interconnected to a wider peace in the Middle East. It is possible to find moderate voices inside every faction and those need to be empowered. If the situation escalates in Syria and the Hamas leadership cannot stay in Damascus any longer without seeming to overtly support Assad’s regime, this will be a great opportunity to provide them with an exit strategy.
There is a major opportunity for the EU to be a core interlocutor in peace talks among Palestinians and hopefully between Israelis and Palestinians.
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