Straw softens Hamas benchmarks

Israel: Straw's statement 'a little more liberal' than the Quartet's demands.

jack straw 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
jack straw 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
As Israel continues its diplomatic battle to deny Hamas international legitimacy, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw - in a BBC television interview - seemed on Sunday to water down the benchmarks the Quartet has set for granting legitimacy to the organization. Asked whether Britain would continue to fund the Palestinian people, Straw said the Quartet - the US, EU, Russia and UN - "set up three conditions which the Hamas leadership need to meet, which is that they recognize the fact of Israel, not worship the flag of Israel, but recognize the fact of Israel; they respect the international agreements which have been entered into; and they maintain the cease-fire, and that's what we're pushing the Hamas leadership to achieve." Israeli officials, wary of a public diplomatic spat with Britain, considered to be one of EU countries most firmly opposed to contacts with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority, would only say that Straw's version was "a little more liberal" than the statement issued by the Quartet on January 30. Straw's definition falls considerably short, however, of Israel's interpretation of that statement. British Embassy spokeswoman Karen Kaufman said Straw's words should not be interpreted as signaling a change in policy. "We support the Quartet's principles," she said. Straw's comments came at the end of an interview in which he characterized a projected US strike on Iran as "completely nuts." The Quartet statement from January 30 reads, "It is the view of the Quartet that all members of a future Palestinian government must be committed to nonviolence, recognition of Israel and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the road map." The EU, in a statement issued after its 25 foreign ministers met in Luxembourg Monday, reiterated its commitment to these principles: "nonviolence, recognition of Israel's right to exist and acceptance of existing agreements." Straw attended that meeting. Israel has interpreted the Quartet statement in the widest terms possible. Government spokesmen have consistently said that recognizing Israel meant recognizing the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state, and not just recognizing it as an established fact. In addition, government spokesman have said that renouncing terrorism meant an unequivocal Hamas renunciation of terrorism and violence, a declaration that Hamas was "out of the terror business, no longer collaborating or supporting terrorist activities." And, finally, Israel interprets the clause on the acceptance of previous agreements to mean that Hamas must indeed accept these agreements, and not merely "respect" them. In reaction to the Straw interview, Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said, "Everyone understands that for the peace process to move ahead the Hamas government must fundamentally alter its extremist positions, and that will only happen if the international community speaks with one voice and stresses the fact that until Hamas reforms itself, it will not be considered legitimate." A look at statements made by key international players over the last few months as to what the Quartet's benchmarks actually mean show a range of interpretations. For instance, a spokesman for the French Foreign Ministry took a broader approach to the benchmarks last week. He told a press briefing in Paris Friday that the three principles were "recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and acceptance of the Oslo Accords. Everyone agrees on these three principles." Straw, however, said nothing of accepting the Oslo Accords, and he did not mention renouncing violence. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that the principles were "nonviolence, recognition of Israel and respect for previous agreements between the parties." This itself represented somewhat of an erosion of a position she articulated on March 16 during a visit to Australia. There she said, "Hamas now has an obligation in its governance to be able to deliver the promise of a better life for the Palestinian people, and that means living up to the obligations the Palestinians have undertaken over the decades, recognizing the state... recognizing the right of Israel to exist, because you can't have a peace process if you don't recognize the right of the other party to exist, agreeing to disband militias and, perhaps most importantly, renouncing violence." Rice's call for Hamas to recognize the right of Israel to exist, Israeli officials pointed out, went further than Straw's statement about recognizing the "fact of Israel." Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, after meeting Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal on March 3, came out with a narrower interpretation. He defined the international benchmarks as "the necessity of commitment to all the existing accords in the peace process, the necessity of recognizing the right of Israel to exist as a partner in negotiations and the necessity of giving up armed methods of dealing with political issues." There is both a lack of clarity over what exactly is involved in the benchmarks and a difference between Israel and some of its international interlocutors, particularly inside the EU and the UN, over how Hamas will actually go about meeting the requirements. While Israeli official have said Jerusalem expected Hamas to declare a recognition of its right to exist and issue a public renunciation of violence, some European diplomats are suggesting that Hamas need not take such dramatic actions. EU Mideast envoy Marc Otte, for example, indicated last week that Hamas might be able to satisfy the requirements by saying it was ready to negotiate with Israel, which he said would imply recognition; continue to abide by a cease-fire, which would indicate it has given up terrorism; and not infringe agreements made with Israel, which would imply acceptance of those agreements.