Saturday, September 15, 2007

UK Lawmakers Call for Changes in MidEast Policies

Mr. Gapes, in your committee report, you call on the government to bring direct talks with Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood – an about face from not only British policy but from that of most Western allies. Why is that? Mike Gapes is the chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the British parliament. In the United Kingdom, members of parliament have taken an approach to foreign policy – particularly that of Britain in the Middle East – that some are characterizing as more pro-active than the one we normally see. In the House of Commons, the Foreign Affairs Committee has issued a report calling for sharp course corrections regarding the nation's Mideast policies. Committee chairman, member of parliament Mike Gapes is my guest. Mr. Gapes, in your committee report, you call on the government to bring direct talks with Hamas, Hizbullah and the Muslim Brotherhood – an about face from not only British policy but from that of most Western allies. Why is that? GAPES: Can I first of all correct you? We said we believe there should be engagement with moderate elements within Hamas in order to try to move towards the possibility of a comprehensive two-state agreement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We don't believe it's possible to have an agreement there that doesn't involve Gaza, and since June we have been in the situation where the Palestinian territories are divided. You have the secular Fatah controlling the West Bank and the Islamist Hamas controlling Gaza. We also believe the only way you [will] get movement towards the implementation, which we support, of the three Quartet principles of recognition of Israel – non-violence, and abiding by previous agreements – is to engage with people, to move them. It may not work, but frankly the current approach and the boycott of the national unity government that was established just a few months ago has not worked either. And also, if we are going to help with the humanitarian problems with regard to Gaza, clearly there has to be engagement with Hamas there. On the question of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, we believe they are an important political player within the society. There are people who are called independent members of Parliament in Egypt but everybody knows that many of them are Islamists linked to the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood in Egypt, as long as it maintains a position of being non-violent and supporting the democratic process and involvement in the political process, we believe they need to be engaged with. We don't believe that democracy in Egypt will be supported by the international community if we close our eyes to the realities there. And as regards the situation in Lebanon, then that is very complicated. We believe that Hizbullah is a malignant organizationsupported by Syria and Iran, but we also think there are members of parliament in Lebanon, including members who have been in the government in Lebanon, who come from Hizbullah. We think it is wrong to take a position, which in effect rejects any engagement with the elected parliamentarians in that society. TML: You speak of moderate elements within these different groups. How do you go about identifying these so-called moderates? GAPES: That's always difficult. Our experience in Northern Ireland is sometimes you find individuals who are prepared to engage, to take part in the process. It may take many years, but ultimately you have to try to find ways to move organizations by engaging with people to get them into the political process. The alternative to that is the process of total non-contact isolation, and boycott is counter-productive and drives people towards more extreme politics and that would be an absolute disaster. TML: Is there any indication that these three groups are interested in being engaged by the UK or other Western powers? GAPES: Well we have already had contact and we know that our…For example, the British journalist, Alan Johnston was taken hostage in Gaza a few months ago and was held for a very long time and actually, British diplomats did engage with Hamas at the quite early stages and that was one of the factors, I think, which led ultimately to his release. The Hamas people there were actually praised by our foreign secretary for assisting in the release. He had been taken by a particular clan within Gaza. So there are examples. There are also examples of people having some engagement with elected parliamentarians in different countries. I don't believe you can group these three organizations together. We are not arguing that. We are not saying there should be a simplistic view on these matters. The virtue of politics is dialogue and involvement and I have to say there are people in the United States, frankly, who live in an unreal world when they take a view that Britain has diplomatic relations with Iran, or [that] Britain has dialogue with Iranians. It’s very difficult. We don't agree with the government of Iran on many issues. There are issues we are extremely concerned about and we are strongly involved in the U.N. process and the process in the International Atomic Energy Agency to stop the nuclear program in Iran. But nevertheless, we should have dialogue. We should have engagement. TML: Mahmoud 'Abbas has said he won't talk with Hamas until control of the Gaza Strip is returned to his government. Are you concerned that engaging Haniyya and Hamas at this time could prove counter-productive?
Mike Gapes
GAPES: Well, clearly, there is an internal power struggle within the Palestinian Authority. But our own assessment is we cannot see how you will get a comprehensive two-state solution that doesn't take account of Gaza. Although it's quite clear there was this coup by Hamas in Gaza, we also have to recognize that the previous government was a national unity government which Hamas was part of, with Fatah. And Hamas won the election in 2006. It got 70 percent of the seats. So, therefore, we are in a very difficult position. Although Mahmoud 'Abbas is the elected president, there was also an elected Palestinian Authority parliament in which Hamas had a majority. TML: Your foreign office argues that there must be some ground rules, that, before speaking with these groups they must renounce violence. Is that unrealistic to ask? GAPES: Well, we are not arguing and I think it's important to make this distinction, that we sign up to a position that the British government speaks [with them], and the Quartet, or that the Israelis have a direct relationship in negotiations with Hamas. We are taking about engagement with modern elements in order to get them to move towards the acceptance of the Quartet principles. And I agree – there need to be ground rules. But the question is, how best do you get organizations to move from their current position towards the position where you wish them to be? If you just simply say, “We don't talk to you, we don't have any contact, we don’t have any dialogue, we don't have any engagement short of negotiations,” then that is an unrealistic, absurd position, because frankly, the way we got – in Northern Ireland – the IRA, Sinn Fein, its political wing, to move to where they are today is by some engagement with individuals within that organization. TML: The policy of boycotting Hamas has been observed with a surprising degree of uniformity by Western nations. Are you concerned that your efforts to push your own government into a position counter to virtually all of your allies will isolate the UK? GAPES: No, I think that is a caricature of the reality. In fact, in theQuartet policy, there are a lot of people in the European Union who are taking a similar approach. There are in fact, quite a few Israelis who have been critical of the fact that the policy of isolation has not worked. Now, within the EU, for example, there are senior figures in a number of other governments, in a number of other parties who also feel in a similar way. I think it would be better and more realistic to say that there is a position from the American administration and from the Israeli government that has a particular view. In the European Union, there are different views and the Quartet also includes Russia, and Russia has engaged with Hamas. TML: Palestinian elections are on the horizon. If Hamas is kept out of the election process – through legislation or otherwise – will it be a valid election? GAPES: I would think it would be very doubtful it would be a valid election if people don't have a clear choice in the elections and, frankly, I don't think that any election which then leads to somebody being elected on the basis of a substantial body of opinion not being expressed, would encourage that body of opinion to move into a democratic process. In fact, it's more likely to strengthen the extremists. TML: Therefore, should Britain refuse to recognize the results if Hamas is excluded? GAPES: No, I think we are a long way away from that. I don't think there is necessarily an argument about excluding people from standing in the elections and I think the British government should be stressing and pushing for restoration of dialogue between Fatah and Hamas, the reestablishment of a national unity government, and, if there are new Palestinian elections, that those elections take place both in the Gaza and the West Bank. Any election that takes place in only part of the Palestinian territories will clearly not provide a representative Palestinian government. TML: So what is the best framework for peace in the Middle East? GAPES: Well, ultimately, there has to be a conference and there has to be a negotiation with all the Arab countries to recognize Israel's right to exist, so that there are comprehensive agreements between the Arabs and Israelis and not just between the Palestinians and Israelis. But we're a long way away from that and I'm personally very skeptical about the plan that President Bush has for the conference in the autumn, whether that will succeed, frankly because of the internal political problems in Israel, but also because of these very, very deep, internal Palestinian divisions that we talked about. And until we find a way to rebuild the unity in the Palestinian territories and at the same time shift the extremists to a more moderate position, and therefore to the Quartet principles, then I think we will not have a successful conclusion to any negotiations. TML: Many thanks, committee chairman and member of parliament Mike Gapes. GAPES: Thank you.

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Comment: So much for staying the course-so much for sticking together-so ends our coalition against terror

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