Bucking American and Israeli policy, a group of former senior American and British officials steeped in Middle East affairs have been conducting a dialogue with Hamas and Hezbollah in an attempt to bring the two militant Islamic groups into the democratic fold.
The former Western officials have held two meetings in Lebanon in recent months with senior representatives of Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as with the Lebanese branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Jamaat-e-Islami of Pakistan. The talks were held under the aegis of London-based private organization Conflicts Forum. The organization is headed by former senior British intelligence official Alastair Crooke, who spent several years negotiating cease-fires with Hamas.
“We need to engage those groups who have legitimacy, and listen to them,” said Crooke, who retired as special European Union envoy to the Middle East in 2003, in an interview with the Forward. “Not listening and not talking to them prevents us from having the right analysis and the right tools.”
Beyond the immediate questions posed by Hamas’s role in the Palestinian legislative elections slated for January and Hezbollah’s political clout in Lebanon, Crooke’s initiative strikes at the heart of the major foreign-policy dilemma facing the Bush administration. Its efforts to spread democracy could end up bringing Islamist parties to power.
The assumption behind the initiative — which is funded entirely by private donors from Europe and, to a lesser degree, America — is that Hamas and Hezbollah’s popular appeal and political ambitions differ radically from Al Qaeda’s nihilist worldview. According to this view, the official American and Israeli insistence on shunning any dialogue with these Islamic groups is counterproductive and belies the historical precedent of armed groups morphing into political parties in such countries as Northern Ireland and South Africa.
Crooke’s group already has held two meetings with Hamas and Hezbollah representatives — one in March and one in July — and more encounters are in the works, although no dates or locations have been set. Future discussions are likely to include fewer participants and to delve deeper into some issues, such as political participation.
The talks have been criticized harshly in Israel and the United States.
“To speak to them is as useful as meeting with [former Ku Klux Klan leader] David Duke to convince him to work for the black civil rights movement,” said Morton Klein, the head of the hawkish Zionist Organization of America. “All it does is give more credibility to Hezbollah and Hamas. There should be no meeting until they renounce violence, revoke their charter and accept Israel’s right to exist.”
The same demands have been made by Israeli Prime Minister Sharon as a condition for full Israeli cooperation in organizing Palestinian elections.
Greg Sullivan, a spokesman for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs at the State Department, said that since Hamas and Hezbollah are designated as foreign terrorist organizations, “as a matter of policy, we do not engage in dialogue with these groups, nor do we encourage others to do so.”
Europe’s position is more ambiguous: For example, the E.U.’s terrorist list includes both the military and political wings of Hamas as well as Hezbollah’s international wing, but not Hezbollah’s political wing. In general, European diplomats have been more inclined toward dialogue with organizations that Israel rejects as radical.
Kim Howells, the British deputy foreign minister in charge of Middle Eastern affairs, told the Forward in an interview that E.U. officials are not talking to Hamas.
“It is the Palestinians who need to talk to them,” he said. He added that the British government had nothing to do with the steps takenby Crooke, its former intelligence official. At the same time, Howells pointed to the Northern Ireland precedent as an example worth emulating. “We took some risks, and it paid huge dividends,” he said. “It could be the same.”
Crooke was recalled in 2003 by Britain because Israel allegedly complained that he had become too friendly with Hamas, pointing to documents found during Israeli military sweeps in the West Bank describing two meetings that Crooke had with Hamas and an armed wing of Fatah, the Al-Aqsa Brigades.
Crooke declined to comment on his departure. He brushed aside the notion that he was granting legitimacy to terrorists by meeting with them, claiming that their recent electoral successes were an indication of their legitimacy and proof that they should not be ignored.
Like several of the former Western officials interviewed for this article, Crooke said that Hamas and Hezbollah representatives stated that they had no enmity with the United States per se.
In addition, Crooke and other participants in the talks said that Israel was “very pragmatic and well informed when it comes to engaging these groups.” For instance, they noted, Israel has negotiated with Hezbollah to arrange exchanges of hostages and dead bodies. It also has negotiated with Hamas leaders in Palestinian municipalities, where the group won in recent elections.
Milton Bearden, a storied former CIA operative who coordinated American support for Afghan Mujahedins against the Soviets in the 1980s, said that Hamas and Hezbollah officials were clearly aware of his prior interactions with Israel. While he was the CIA station chief in Sudan in the mid-1980s, Bearden orchestrated the covert escape of some 500 Ethiopian Jews and a Mossad team.
“These guys aren’t going to meet with us because [they think] we’re a bunch of nice guys,” Bearden said. “They understand my past and my deep involvement with Israel.”
In addition to Bearden, the American participants at the first meeting in March were Graham Fuller, former CIA official; Geoffrey Aronson of the Foundation for Middle East Peace; Robert Muller, president and board chairman of Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation; Marc Perry, longtime adviser to Palestinians with the lobbying firm Jefferson Waterman International, and Fred Hoff, a Washington lawyer involved in the drafting of the Mitchell report. On the British side were Beverley Milton-Edwards, assistant director of the Centre for the Study of Ethnic Conflict at Queen’s University, Belfast, and Ismail Patel, head of friends at the British nongovernmental organization, Friends of Al Aqsa. Also in attendance was Jamal Khashoggi, adviser to then-Saudi ambassador to Britain Turki al Faisal. (Turki has since been appointed Saudi ambassador to Washington, and Khashoggi moved with him a few weeks ago.)
Mousa Abu Marzook headed the Hamas delegation at both meetings. Nawaf Musawi, head of the foreign affairs department, represented Hezbollah.
The July meeting also included Perry, Bearden, Muller, Aronson, Crooke and Patel. In addition, the meeting featured CBS producer George Crile; Lord Alderdice, a key negotiator in Northern Ireland, and Gabrielle Rifkind, an Oxford University academic.
“The idea is primarily to hear unmediated explanations from those folks about their policies and their actions,” Aronson said. “And we can also tell them our opinion without any official backing.”
While the Western participants in the talks stressed that they were acting as private citizens, they acknowledged that their Muslim interlocutors obviously saw them as possible liaisons to European governments and to Washington. In addition to their informal contacts with European and Israeli officials in America, several of the Western participants have briefed officials at the State Department, the CIA and the National Security Council, although they declined to give names.
Perry, co-director of Conflicts Forum and the Washington correspondent of the Palestine Report web magazine, said U.S. officials had been hesitant to meet them and that participants in the meeting had gotten no response from memos about the meetings which they circulated in government circles.
Sullivan, the State Department official, stressed that such initiatives were not used to “convey messages to terrorist groups or engage in dialogue through proxy.” But the former officials who met with Hamas and Hezzbollah said that they hoped their governments would eventually seize upon their channel of communication.
“It is worth maintaining such channels that the U.S. government can eventually pick up,” said Fuller, who served 17 of his 25 years in the CIA in the Middle East. “Sooner or later they’ll have to bite the bullet and talk to them.”
Participants stressed what they described as the level of sophistication of their Muslim interlocutors. They also said that the saw encouraging signs in Hamas’s decision to participate in national Palestinian elections and in the group’s decision not respond violently to recent violence in Gaza.
Aronson said that at one point he asked the Hamas officials whether the use of violence was a political calculation.
“They said ‘yes,’” Aronson said, “which I took to mean that it is not ingrained in their genetic code and that, if circumstances change, so will their tactics.”