Wednesday, 21 July 2010

No willing partner

Yesterday (Tuesday, 20 July) David Cameron made his first journey to Washington as Britain's new prime minister. After an unprecedented three-hour visit to the White House, and a private face-to-face discussion lasting a full hour, the two leaders emerged to face a joint press conference dominated by two issues. The first was the release of the convicted Lockerbie bomber, Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi, from a Scottish jail eleven months ago on humanitarian grounds and any role that America's current hate-figure, BP, may have had in it. The second was the situation in Afghanistan, and the withdrawal process for US, British and NATO forces.

Scour the internet and the press as you may, and you would be fortunate indeed to find references to any interchange the two men may have had on current issues in the Middle East.

But, swamped by matters of more immediate interest, both the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran's nuclear development programme did come up for discussion. The President and the PM agreed on the necessity of starting direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians. On that issue, according to a White House press statement, Cameron said: "We desperately need a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians that provides security, justice and hope. It is time for direct talks, not least because it is time for each, Israel and Palestine, to test the seriousness of the other."

On the topic of Iran, President Obama said that he was united with Prime Minister Cameron on the threat posed by Iran's nuclear programme, and warned that further defiance by Iran will lead to further isolation of the Islamic regime.

During the joint press conference Cameron reiterated this message: "America and Britain, with our partners, stand ready to negotiate, and to do so in good faith. But in the absence of a willing partner, we will implement with vigour the sanctions package agreed by the United Nations Security Council, and in Europe we will be taking further steps as well."

Odd that the question of a "willing partner" should feature so strongly in considering possibly delicate negotiations with Iran on nuclear matters, but should be conspicuous by its absence when discussing an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal. For the fact of the matter is, as distinguished Middle East commentator Barry Rubin recently observed: "There is a partner for talks and shorter-term cooperation (ie the Palestinian Authority) but no partner for full peace. Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah are not amenable to diplomacy."

And there, as Shakespeare has it, is the rub – which the Concise Oxford dictionary defines as a difficulty or impediment. Indeed. The opening of direct discussions, if or when they come about, may encompass all manner of outstanding issues, but the one issue they cannot resolve is the indisputable fact that the Gaza Strip is in the hands of an Islamist terrorist organisation that is viscerally opposed to any accommodation with Israel.

As Barry Rubin points out, revolutionary Islamism is advancing and the US, given its current policy, isn’t exactly a bulwark battling against it. He points to the need for the US to have a worked-out strategy in place to contain Iran when – not, he says, if – it gets nuclear weapons, and even more with how to deal in the Gaza Strip with Hamas, a repressive revolutionary Islamist dictatorship and a client of Iran.

Not that the leaders of Fatah in the Palestinian Authority do not themselves recognise the problems that Hamas poses. "The worst thing that has happened to us," is how the PA chief negotiator, Saeb Erekat, characterised the Hamas coup d'état in Gaza in a recent TV interview.

But wringing one's hands over an unsatisfactory state of affairs goes no way towards solving it. Either Hamas must be driven out of Gaza by fair means (ie democratic elections) or foul (ie militarily) – or the organisation must be induced to come to terms with its internecine rivals, Fatah, and accept the outcome of peace negotiations. This would require Hamas to agree to a two-state solution – the only feasible option currently on the table – and therefore, by implication, the existence of Israel within secure boundaries alongside a sovereign Palestine.

The leaders of the Western world, and the organisations closely involved – the UN, the EU, the Quartet – never seem to approach this fundamental issue in their many interventions. It is as if all the parties concerned had voluntarily donned blindfolds so as to avoid seeing what was in front of their noses – that Islamist terrorism, wreaking havoc across the world, the reason for major commitments of forces and resources in Iraq and Afghanistan, and for the continued imposition of UN sanctions on Iran and its nuclear ambitions, is the same Islamist terrorism at work in southern Lebanon and in the Gaza Strip.

There is a community of interest, which would involve also many "moderate" Muslim countries, in combating fundamentalist Islamism, a movement totally ruthless in pursuing its objectives, sacrificing not only the lives of its own adherents by supporting and celebrating its suicide bombers, but also slaughtering innocent people in droves.

Joined-up thinking is called for. One fears the call will go unheeded.

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