Diplomacy: Contact lenses

So far, Israel's policy of isolating Hamas has been surprisingly successful in the international arena.

hamas kids 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
hamas kids 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli government officials had to be heaving a sigh of relief this week when South African Deputy Foreign Minister Aziz Pahad cancelled a scheduled visit to the region. It's not that anyone has anything against Pahad. But the cancellation of his visit has put off - at least for now - a difficult question that Prime Minister-elect Ehud Olmert will have to grapple with soon after forming his new government: how to deal with foreign diplomats who meet with Hamas officials. If this sounds strikingly like 2003, it should. In May 18 of that year, following two Hamas-perpetrated suicide bombings, that took place one day after the next and killed nine people, the cabinet convened an emergency session that resulted in a directive to all government officials that they were not to meet with any foreign official who, during a visit to the region, met Yasser Arafat. And indeed, until Arafat's death in November 2004, and with just a few exceptions, any foreign diplomat who met Arafat lost his chance, at least on that visit, to meet Prime Minister Ariel Sharon or any other Israeli official. The goal of the policy was to isolate Arafat, and to underscore what Israel declared was his "irrelevance." It also forced diplomats to choose whom they wanted to talk to more - Arafat or Sharon. Some leaders, such as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, put off a visit until after Arafat died, because they didn't want to be forced to choose. With Israel grappling now with ways to keep various states around the world from recognizing and dealing with Hamas, this policy is once again being discussed among some diplomatic officials. At this point, however, it is still only in the discussion stage. There are two key reasons for this. Firstly, until a new government is formed, there is no truly coherent, all-encompassing Israeli policy governing all aspects of Israel's relationship with the newly-configured PA. Olmert is expected to hold a meeting to begin creating just such a policy next week. Secondly, up until now no diplomats have traveled here from abroad to meet the Hamas leaders of the new PA government. Hamas made a fairly big deal of a meeting Foreign Minister Mahmoud al-Zahar had with Chinese diplomat Yang Wei Guo in Gaza this week, but this was a relatively low-ranking diplomat who serves as one of China's representatives to the Palestinians and is based in Ramallah. He did not come from overseas to see the new PA. Pahad was to be the first. But an official in his office told The Jerusalem Post that - at the request of South African President Thabo Mbeki - the visit was delayed because Mbeki himself plans to visit. No date, however, has been set for that trip. WHICH MEANS Israel still has some time to determine policy. Despite some minor irritations - like Yang's meeting with Hamas, or Hamas' announcement that its representatives met an Indian diplomat some two weeks ago and French diplomats prior to that (a claim denied by the French) - Israel's policy of trying to wall-in Hamas has proved surprisingly successful. True, Russia and Turkey hosted high-level Hamas delegations last month, but there hasn't been any follow up. Indeed, a senior official in the US administration said that Washington - which has come out unequivocally against any contact with a Hamas-led PA - was pleasantly surprised by the degree to which Europe has towed the line on this matter. And Europe here is key. Which doesn't mean that there are no meetings between European officials who are either Hamas representatives or now employees in Hamas-led municipalities or ministries. There are. But, as EU envoy Marc Otte told the Post, "There are contacts, and there are contacts." Otte said that the bird flu alert two weeks ago was an example of contact taking place between Israelis, international players and the Palestinians. During that alert, he said, "Israel had to have some contacts with Palestinians, and asked some donors - including the EU - to intervene quickly to ensure there would be adequate funding to help prevent avian flu. Obviously, there needed to be people on the Palestinian side, and they were people from the Agriculture Ministry. Is that contact with Hamas?" But, Otte said, there is a substantial difference between contact with PA officials on a technical basis and engaging Hamas in a political dialogue. The latter has not been done by the EU, he said, adding that he felt the policy was sustainable until Hamas accepted in word or deed the three conditions of recognizing Israel, renouncing terrorism and accepting previous agreements. In "word or deed," Otte explained, meant that the organization might be considered to have fulfilled these requirements if it were, for example, to agree to negotiate with Israel, something that would imply recognition; if it continued to abide by its "truce" and not carry out terrorist activity, a good indication that it had renounced terrorism; and if it implemented conditions of previous agreements, an implied sign of accepting these agreements. One senior European diplomat said no one really expected to see Zahar or PA Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh jump on a soap box and say that they were "burning everything they once held dear." Yet, he said, actions were a good indication of intent, and something the EU was carefully watching. While according to US legislation, any contact with someone affiliated with a terrorist organization is barred, in the EU the situation is not as clear-cut. Though placement on the EU's terror list precludes the transfer of any money to that organization, some of the 25 EU countries have different legislation regarding whether contact itself is forbidden. ACCORDING TO Israeli assessments, European policy toward Hamas is guided in the short term by two principles. The first is that Europe wants to ensure that no severe humanitarian crisis breaks out in the PA, a crisis they fear they would be blamed for were the EU to cut off aid. This explains why technical contacts with PA officials, even under Hamas ministries, will continue: so that the European aid would continue to flow. At the same time, the EU wants to continue searching for a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on the principle of a negotiated, two state-solution. This is why the EU, which believes earnestly in the power of dialogue with nearly everyone, is as of yet not engaged in political discussions with Hamas - because Hamas stands opposed to those principles. EU Foreign policy chief Javier Solana said as much during a speech he gave to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday. Stating that Hamas's political program - which does not abide by the three international benchmarks for gaining legitimacy - is unacceptable to the international community, Solana said that these three benchmarks were the minimum requirement necessary for the realization of the "political ideal consistently championed by the EU," namely "a negotiated solution leading to the creation of a viable Palestinian state in peaceful coexistence with Israel under the principles of international law." "Obviously, there can be no negotiation if the parties do not recognize one another," he said. "There can be no peaceful settlement if the parties resort to arms in order to resolve the conflict. Nor can there be any solution based on the principles of international law if the parties disregard the fundamental principle that agreements are made to be honored." In other words, one of the reasons that Europe has stayed firm up to this point in not granting legitimacy to Hamas is that to do otherwise would be to undermine the underpinnings of its own diplomatic efforts in the region for the last three decades - a two-state solution based on mutual recognition. In addition, there may very well be a third reason why the EU has not broken ranks with the US and Israel regarding Hamas: It does not want to start out on the wrong foot with Olmert and his new government. This will be a government with a strong center-left orientation, one senior Israel diplomatic official said, and the Europeans are not interested in alienating it right off the bat by engaging in any type of political dialogue with Haniyeh or Zahar. So, in the meantime, Europe has held the line. As long as it does, meetings of low-ranking Indian and Chinese diplomats with Zahar are of relatively little significance. More significant would be visits by foreign diplomats to Gaza to hold a diplomatic dialogue with Hamas leaders. But even then, a visit by South Africa's deputy foreign minister would be one thing, and a visit by a British or French diplomat of the same level would be something else entirely. And that, at least for the immediate future, is not in the offing.