Alastair Crooke writes:
It was in 2003 that I realised something fundamental had changed. The door to the room in which I was sitting flew open. In stalked a figure still dressed in a dark overcoat and scarf. He evidently could contain himself no longer. I was in Downing Street with the prime minister’s foreign affairs adviser, David Manning; the overcoated figure bursting into our meeting was Jack Straw. He wanted to tell Manning that he had persuaded Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, to add Hamas to the EU list of terrorist movements. His tale of his conversion of Fischer was wrapped in expressions of outrage at Hamas. It wasn’t so much the proscription that shocked me. A ceasefire, which I had helped facilitate, had broken down. What was new was the elation with which Straw greeted the banning. I don’t know what Manning thought, but he will have been aware that the terrorist ‘list’ is one of those things from which it’s almost impossible to get a name removed. The consequences for diplomacy, for the politics of peace-making, would be profound, possibly irreversible; but Straw wasn’t worried. Manning, I knew, believed strongly that there could be no solution to the Israel-Palestine issue without Hamas involvement and had firmly supported EU efforts at inclusive peace-building. Officially, the EU remained committed to a political solution, but it now seemed that two key member states were heading in the opposite direction – towards a militarised resolution. The wind had changed.
There had already been hints that a political solution was no longer at the forefront of Whitehall thinking. Not long before, a senior British official had told me bluntly that my methods of building popular consent – holding ‘town hall’ meetings with all factions, working with Hamas, shuttling between Palestinians on the ground and President Arafat to ensure broad participation and continued momentum – were passé. We were in a new era, and it required new thinking: ‘The road to Jerusalem now passes through Baghdad,’ the official insisted. He was speaking just before the 2003 invasion. The message was clear: the Islamic resistance in Palestine was to be neutralised, and psychologically defeated, by the massive display of Western force in Iraq, rather than brought into the political process. Britain and the US expected that the chastened Palestinians would then make the necessary concessions to Israel. What was striking was the official’s conviction that such an outcome was inevitable.
These were heady days for American and British officials and enthusiasm for the ‘war on terror’ was soaring. At our first meeting, Manning’s Downing Street successor, Nigel Sheinwald, told me angrily that security in Palestine could be achieved by eradicating the ‘virus’ of Hamas from Gaza, and eliminating its ‘disease’ from the region. He had no interest in helping to create legitimate Palestinian security services, representative of a cross-section of the community. The language was Washington’s. The Palestinian conflict was seen not as a problem in its own right, but as a subset of a war against ‘extremism’ – another domino to be pushed over in order to strengthen the ‘moderates’. A senior Israeli intelligence official later told me, privately, that he believed the change had begun in earnest in September 2003, after Arafat forced Mahmoud Abbas – a favoured figure in Washington – to resign as prime minister. Angry and frustrated, Bush called Blair. He complained that the Europeans ‘were dancing around Arafat’, while the US was left to do the ‘heavy lifting’ with Israel. Bush also complained that he did not see peace-building as compatible with his ‘war on terror’. Al-Jazeera’s recent release of the Palestine Papers has cast some light on all this: the documents include copies of British covert plans from 2003 and 2004 to ‘degrade’ the capabilities of opponents to the Palestinian Authority, to disrupt their communications, intern their members, close their civil and charitable organisations, remove them from public bodies, and seize their assets. Blair had set aside the lessons of peace-building, so recently learned in Northern Ireland, and embraced the doctrine of counter-insurgency.
The shift in the British position, under American pressure, sabotaged European policy. It undermined the EU’s commitment to promoting Palestinian unity by suppressing, at the covert, security level, opposition to the PA, removing from Palestinian institutions not only all members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad but even those elements in Fatah who had been involved in the second intifada. From now on, the EU would ‘talk the talk’ of encouraging Palestinian unity, while several of its most prominent member states were ‘walking the walk’ of a security-led repression of the very movements the EU was trying to encourage into the political arena. The result was that when Hamas – rather than being demoralised or psychologically defeated by shock and awe in Baghdad – comfortably won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections, the EU was forced into a militarised security response. The new commitment to counter-insurgency meant that there was no prospect of exploring the political possibilities of Hamas’s win. After the election the UN envoy to the Middle East, Alvaro de Soto, wrote a memo to the UN secretary general complaining that the conditions for entering into a dialogue with Hamas had been deliberately set so that Hamas would be unable to meet them – thus engineering its exclusion. De Soto resigned from the UN soon afterwards.