For more than a year, the European Union and its member states toed the harsh Israeli line in boycotting the Hamas-led Palestinian government. But since the unity government of Fatah and Hamas was sworn in earlier this month, the Europeans have parted ways with Jerusalem and are seeking direct contacts with the Palestinian Authority — and they are right to do so.
Despite Israeli calls to continue the boycott of the P.A., the foreign ministers of Belgium and Sweden met with Palestinian Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr, an independent, as well as with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. Norway, which is not part of the E.U. but has historically been a path-breaker in Middle East diplomacy, went a step further when it sent its deputy foreign minister to Gaza to meet Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas.
The 27-member union and its executive branch, the European Commission, have not yet agreed on a clear approach toward the new Palestinian Cabinet, but heavyweights Germany, France and Great Britain are leaning toward opening up formal channels to all non-Hamas ministers and perhaps even talking informally to Hamas leaders themselves.
The European policy shift is based on a strong belief that the Palestinians sent a signal of moderation and pragmatism when they formed the unity government, and that the world should not dismiss their efforts lightly.
It is true that Hamas has still not met the three demands set by the Madrid Quartet — the United States, E.U., United Nations and Russia — of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and accepting all previous agreements with Israel. But by maintaining a de facto truce and promising to respect existing agreements, Hamas has edged in that direction, and may move further if given the right incentives.
It remains unclear what impact the boycott has actually had on Palestinian politics, and as such the rationale for maintaining it is equally questionable. Anyone who argues that the new Palestinian government is just as bad as the old one would have to admit that the boycott has been a failure. After all, it has most certainly not destroyed Hamas as a political force or seriously undermined its credibility. So even from a hawkish point of view, there is no point in maintaining a total diplomatic and financial freeze on the P.A.
So unless there is a sudden outbreak of suicide bombings or the Hamas leadership makes some particularly provocative statements, we can expect to soon see a flurry of European-Palestinian contacts and a quick resumption of aid. Most E.U. member states will likely limit their encounters to Abbas, Abu Amr and Finance Minister Salam Fayyad. But sooner or later, some Hamas ministers will inevitably be included in the talks, and the front against the Islamists will gradually crumble.
Such a shift in European policy is facilitated by the Bush administration’s apparent decision, even if it maintains the facade a bit longer, to defy Israel’s position on the boycott. To be sure, when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice came to Ramallah last week she talked only to Abbas, and even shunned the moderates in the Cabinet. Still, she also called for a quick resumption of peace talks with the current Palestinian leadership, something the Israeli government still rejects.
There seems to be a growing belief on both sides of the Atlantic that Israeli attitudes are driven not by a meaningful strategic calculation but solely by domestic politics. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert appears too weak and embattled to risk the wrath of right-wingers both within and outside his Cabinet. The same may also be true for the Palestinian side, where the Hamas leadership is too scared of its radical rivals to take the steps necessary to calm Israeli and international fears. Perhaps the Saudi peace plan, revived by the just-completed Arab League summit in Riyadh, can help to break that psychological stalemate.
European contacts with P.A. ministers and even Hamas members may also provide a way beyond the impasse. But European governments have to be careful about preserving enough room for maneuver. In return for giving more recognition and aid, the E.U. should demand that Hamas make more concrete its renunciation of violence, and even make gestures that could be read as an implicit recognition of the State of Israel.
European governments are increasingly realizing that they control plenty of levers to influence Palestinian behavior. They should make sure to use them as skillfully as possible.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.