Hamas. Is there something to talk about or not?

Despite the prompt and predictable failure of the UN ceasefire resolution to impact on the ground, a rare note of optimism for the medium term was struck at a high powered panel discussion on the Gaza-Israel crisis at the Royal Society of the Arts. The debate centred on whether Hamas was being strengthened or weakened by the Israeli assaults. To the eminent strategic thinker Sir Lawrence Freedman, it seemed clear from the “only rhetorical support ” of most Arab governments that Hamas is being weakened. Interestingly this was a view endorsed on Newsnight last night by Alan Johnson the former BBC correspondent in Gaza who was held hostage in the territory for four months in 2007..

The London –based editor of the paper Al-Quds Al-Arabi Abdel Bari Atwan unsurprisingly took the expected different but not quite contradictory line.
“I have just been speaking to my brother and other members of my family on the West Bank and they are Fatah no more, all Hamas.” Add anger and conviction and you get a different result. “How can you expect a people who are suffering so much not to retaliate ?” asked an impassioned Abdel Bari. “The outcome may have a salutary effect rather than create more anger” replied Freedman. But Freedman, a critic of Israeli strategy since the Yom Kippur war ( “ it has been disastrous”) still stuck to his optimistic view, though with the proviso that it was possible to make the opposite case.

Freedman had two further reasons for optimism. One, that Obama’s substantive silence on the issue is right as it gives him room for manoeuvre when he takes office. And two, that action now – probably taken reluctantly at least as far as the tanks are concerned – by Labour leader and Defence minister Ehud Barak will strengthen the hand of Labour and Kadima against Likud and the harder line Netanyahu in the February 10 general election.

MP Martin Linton, chair of a new group Labour Friends of Palestine, claimed to detect “ a sea change” in Labour’s traditional support for Israel and declared: “ Israel will have to decide what are the limits of its State “ and reverse the ongoing “colonisation” of the West Bank which is “ completely undermining” Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Freedman however dismissed the settlements as the crucial obstacle: “ the problem is not about the colonisation of the West Bank – that’s over – it’s how to convince Israelis that withdrawal won’t be used against them.”

There was general agreement with Abdel Bari’s plea: “ Why not talk to Hamas – they’re elected”, with Freedman calling for the first US top-level diplomatic initiative in 8 years from Hillary Clinton, as soon as Obama take office. According to a Guardian scoop, this may be what he and Hillary have in mind. According to the stately pace of the US constitutional calendar, we won’t have much longer to wait. Meanwhile in Gaza…

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London