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In Britain, the volume of pressure to "engage" with Hamas is fast approaching critical mass. While the official position of Prime Minister Gordon Brown is that Britain will never talk to Hamas as long as it aims to eradicate Israel, the number of voices insistently urging that Hamas be "brought in from the cold" has made such a proposition respectable and leaves Brown's stand looking increasingly vulnerable.
The most prominent political proponent of "engagement" is the Conservative grandee and former Northern Ireland spokesman Michael Ancram, who has now met Hamas (and Hizbullah) in Beirut on three separate occasions in the past year. Ancram says he believes that a two-state solution to the Israel/Arab conflict is only possible if Hamas is part of that solution.
In similar vein, last month the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee recommended that the British government should now "engage" with moderates in Hamas, along with Hizbullah parliamentarians, Syria and the Muslim Brotherhood.
SUCH PEOPLE have been heavily influenced by less establishment voices purporting to be in the business of "conflict resolution."
Under cover of this rubric, they often promote not merely engagement with Hamas and other Islamist radicals, but their actual cause itself. There are three such organizations: Conflicts Forum, run by the controversial former MI6 agent Alastair Crooke; Forward Thinking, headed by William Sieghart, principally known as an arts administrator; and Prospects for Peace, run by Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Yossi Beilin.
Alastair Crooke, a former adviser to the EU High Representative for Foreign Policy Javier Solana, has in the past opened up numerous unofficial channels of communication between Hamas and Western governments. Crooke, whose organization sports the slogan "Listening to Political Islam, Recognizing Resistance," supports the aims of Hamas and other Islamists as "striving to create just societies and bring about political reform in a region entrenched with inequity, that has long suffered the overbearing influence of foreign powers."
Crooke has been given unprecedented opportunities to advance his agenda by the BBC, which has been repeatedly pressing the cause of "engagement" with Hamas. This has been particularly noticeable since Hamas claimed the credit for securing the release last July of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston from his four-month kidnap ordeal in Gaza - an episode which Hamas not only ruthlessly milked but may even have played a part in instigating, in order to make precisely the inroads into the British establishment that it has now achieved.
IT IS A common human impulse to pin one's faith on the capacity of extremists to be seduced and tamed by the prospect of power through compromise, when the only alternative seems to be yet more warfare. But it is vital to understand that every argument supporting this position is as specious as it is dangerous. Far from helping to resolve the Middle East impasse, "engagement" with Islamist radicals is likely not only to further endanger Israel, but also to strengthen the enemies of the free world and undermine its potential allies in the wider arena of the global jihad.
The Quartet's new envoy to the Middle East, Tony Blair, has long wanted to talk to Hamas. Like Michael Ancram, Blair believes that Britain's experience in Northern Ireland, where former Republican and Unionist wild men who were once deadly enemies now share in governing the province, is the paradigm for success in the Middle East. Just as peace was achieved only once the British government started talking to the IRA, the thinking goes, so peace will only come if Hamas is similarly included.
This analogy is so fundamentally flawed as to be entirely worthless. First, there are obvious differences in the nature of these conflicts. The IRA did not want to Catholicize Britain, nor to replace the government of the United Kingdom by Irish rule. It wanted instead a united Ireland; and while one might disagree with this and deplore the terrorism employed to bring it about, such an aim was itself reasonable. But the core aim of Hamas, to annihilate Israel and destroy every Jew, is unconscionable and should put dialogue with it beyond the pale. After all, what's to discuss?
An even more crucial difference is that the IRA was not invited to join the political mainstream. It itself asked to do so, declaring that the war with Britain was over. That was because the British Army had fought it into a permanent stalemate, forcing it to realize that it could never achieve its aims by violent means.
That is very different from seeking to bring into the political process the terrorists of Hamas, who are still actively engaged in violence against Israel and have no intention of stopping until Israel is destroyed. Treating undefeated terrorists as legitimate interlocutors helps turn them into victors.
IN FACT, the British did talk to the IRA through back channels before it gave up its military struggle. As the Cambridge historians John Bew and Martin Frampton have written in their forthcoming book Talking to Terrorists, the outcome of such approaches was a disastrous intensification of violence and a deepening of the Northern Ireland crisis.
In similar vein, every time Israel or the West have attempted to engage the Islamists, disaster has ensued. As a result of "engaging" Ayatollah Khomeini, for example, Jimmy Carter helped bring about the fall of the Shah, the American hostage debacle and 28 years of the Iranian jihad against the free world.
Moreover, far from refusing to have anything to do with Hamas, since 1991 Europe, America and Israel have all made repeated contacts with it through back channels. Yet far from moderating its stance, it has instead become even stronger through perceiving the weakness of a free world so desperate to mollify it.
When Tony Blair was Britain's prime minister, he advocated talking to Hamas until he was roundly told by both King Abdullah of Jordan and Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah that such a move would help destroy their own administrations. Now he is the Quartet's envoy, he is reportedly being informally advised by Daniel Levy, who has repeatedly urged engagement with Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood. But the arguments used by Levy are dangerously wrong.
In a recent article in the Jewish Chronicle, Levy claimed that Hamas and the Brotherhood were a bulwark against al-Qaida because they were "in their own struggle with al-Qaida and reject the latter's nihilism." But in a report last May, Jonathan Halevi of the Jerusalem Centre for Public Affairs reported that there was a growing connection between Hamas and al-Qaida, which was establishing a presence in Gaza, with close ties between the Hamas leadership and senior al-Qaida figures.
And the attack on the Mike's Place bar in Tel Aviv in 2003 by British human-bomb terrorists was a joint al-Qaida/Hamas operation.
INCONSISTENTLY, Levy says that al-Qaida and its "copycat crew" "cannot be reasoned with" because they want to "burn down the house"; so "part of defeating them will be to isolate them." But why must al-Qaida be isolated in order to be defeated, while Hamas is to be engaged with and appeased? What evidence is there that, unlike al-Qaida, Hamas might renounce its murderous jihad? None.
And if conflicts can be ended only by reasoning with the extremists, then why Hamas but not al-Qaida? Even more recklessly, Levy and the rest simply ignore the fact that engaging with Hamas and other Islamists will destroy relatively moderate Arab governments, whether in Jordan, Egypt, Morocco or the Abbas Palestinian administration.
In Gaza, there are growing signs that the Palestinian public is aghast at the thuggery of Hamas, which has been beating and intimidating journalists and detaining and torturing opponents.
Those people will be utterly betrayed if, through being bolstered by the West, Hamas is further entrenched in power. Why does Levy think it is in the interests of Israel, or the West, to destroy those who are less hostile to it in the Arab world and reinforce those who are openly bent on its destruction?
LEVY TALKS about Hamas "moderates." Who are these moderates? And what exactly does moderate mean in the context of Hamas? There is no Hamas official who renounces the core Hamas aim to wipe Israel off the map. How, then, can any of them be moderate? Perhaps he is thinking of someone like Osama Hamdan, the senior Hamas official in Beirut, who is repeatedly touted as a moderate. It was the moderate Hamdan whom Michael Ancram met on three separate occasions in Beirut.
Last month, Hamdan expressed his unwavering support for human-bomb attacks against Israel, rejected the right of Israel to exist and stated that the final goal of Hamas was "to wipe that entity off the face of the earth." That is what "engaging" with Hamdan has achieved.
Levy casts himself as a "realist Zionist," as opposed to something he calls "apocalyptic Zionism." But it is Levy who is demonstrably living in a fantasy world if he seriously believes that talking to terrorists brings anything other than a strengthening of their position and an upsurge in violence.
Levy smears his critics with the calumny that they don't want Israel to live in peace but instead to live in perpetuity "by the sword." But it is Levy's approach that will doom Israel's neck to be offered up in perpetuity to the sword.
ACCORDING to the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee, the deposed Hamas prime minister, Ismail Haniyeh, is a "moderate." Yet Haniyeh has said that the final solution is the "liberation of all Palestine, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the [Jordan] river" and the establishment of an Islamic Palestinian state ruled by Islamic law; he has praised the suicide bomber culture and said human-bomb attacks are the best way of dealing with Israel.
If British MPs believe this man is a moderate, what would it take to get them to acknowledge Islamist extremism?
The committee's conclusion that Britain should talk to Hamas was unanimous. Yet last June its chairman, Labour MP Mike Gapes (a former vice-chairman of Labour Friends of Israel), said in a discussion with William Sieghart on BBC TV's Newsnight that it would be wrong to engage with Hamas while it refused to meet the Quartet's conditions.
When challenged on why he had now changed his position, Gapes maintained he couldn't remember what he had said on Newsnight. In fact, on that occasion he disagreed strongly with Sieghart, who was urging engagement with Hamas. Gapes explicitly rejected the comparison with Northern Ireland, claimed that engagement with Hamas would undermine moderate Arab governments, and stated that the only possible dialogue was on the basis of a two-state solution, which Hamas had never accepted.
Yet two months later, Gapes chaired a committee report which said precisely the opposite and promoted the Sieghart position. When pressed, Gapes claimed he was "merely the committee chairman." When pressed further, he said circumstances had changed - but was unable to say what had changed, except now to reiterate the Sieghart/Crooke/Levy mantra that there could be no peace settlement without the involvement of Hamas.
IN PURPORTING to want to use Hamas against al-Qaida, the "engagement" lobby would apparently sacrifice Israel's interests to appease Islamist demands. But as the relatively moderate Arab regimes understand only too well, legitimizing Hamas, Hizbullah and the Brotherhood will put rocket fuel behind Islamism itself throughout the region. Israel is merely the pawn in a much broader war - and the big loser will be a Western world which does not understand the suicidal game that it is being seduced into playing.
Ultimately, the Western "engagement" rationale is a brutal one. Former Mossad chief Efraim Halevy, for example, appears to believe that Israel must talk to Hamas because it is inevitable that Hamas will defeat Fatah. This appears to mean that we should talk to tyrants simply because they have won power.
It is a doctrine which effectively holds that power confers legitimacy, however illegitimately it has been pursued. It is hard to imagine an argument that hands terror a greater victory.
The writer, a columnist for The Daily Mail, is author of Londonistan.