Michael Ancram: It is time to start dancing with the wolves

As we learned in Northern Ireland, terrorism cannot be defeated by military action

The war in Lebanon, with an uneasy and fragile ceasefire in place, is, for the moment, over. The guns of Israel have almost fallen silent, and the wolves of Hamas and Hizbollah have almost stopped howling. It could, however, at any moment reignite. It is therefore astonishing that our government remains so supinely US-obsessed in the face of what could re-emerge as a genuine threat to international peace and is in effect doing nothing. It is time to start dancing with wolves, to start talking to terrorists.

As we learned in Northern Ireland, terrorism can be contained by military action, but it cannot be defeated by it. In the end, you have to start talking, not necessarily with fanatical leaders who are beyond dialogue, but with those who support them and the communities that give them shelter.

It is not easy. For a short time in 1995 I was ostracised by the Ulster Unionists as "contaminated" when I opened discussions with Sinn Fein/IRA. Such dialogue can never be even remotely seen to condone terrorism, but it can begin to explore ways out of it. We talked and so did the IRA, because after 30 years of "troubles" there could be no military winners.

After 50 years, there are no winners in the Middle East. This latest war of losers has achieved nothing for poor Lebanon but virtual destruction. Hizbollah took a pasting but attracted many more recruits to its cause. Israel gained some added security, but at the cost of many vital friendships in the area.

It is time we faced some truths. Terrorism is abhorrent and criminal and must be eliminated with all the means at our disposal. But terrorism does not exist - nor are terrorists raised and radicalised - in a vacuum. Terrorism depends on the communities within which it finds support for shelter. It recruits from within those communities by setting itself out as their defenders; defending their faith, their land or their homes and lives. To do so they must create anger and resentment against those they can portray as the aggressors against them. So for Hamas and Hizbollah, Israel must constantly be seen as a US-backed aggressor, a perception unfortunately aided by the recent war.

Tony Blair rightly talks about the need to win Muslim hearts and minds. Why then does he in the same breath "growing arcs of extremism"? Has he ever asked himself why the "arcs of extremism" are growing? Does he not understand that sanctioning Israel's attrition against Lebanon has hardened, rather than won over, Muslim and Arab hearts?

That is where dancing with wolves, where dialogue with terrorists, comes in. It is, as I know, hard. There will initially be few meetings of minds, but there will be opportunities for resolving misunderstandings and learning to manage differences - and for chances to build bridges rather than blowing them up.

The British have long been refining the process of winning hearts and minds. It must be based on patient confidence building, begun through delicate contacts. It demands the establishing of sufficient mutual trust to be able to meet and to talk. It requires the gradual introduction of a peace dividend, a tangible benefit at each successful step along the peace road. Ultimately, it involves including all those who must be part of the solution but who are currently "off limits".

It may not be possible yet for Israel to speak directly to Hamas, let alone Hizbollah, but there can be no "two state solution" without the eventual involvement of Hamas, and there can be no secure Israel without a permanent cessation of violence by Hizbollah. If they cannot talk yet, then others must pave the way.

And if at the moment these two terrorist groups are unapproachable, then we should be talking to their sponsors in Syria and Iran, whose governments the British know well. The hearts and minds that must be won are those of our enemies as much as of our friends. Their initial intransigence may appear unbreachable, but I learned in Northern Ireland that there are ways of squaring such circles. Talking is not a sign of weakness. You can talk to insurgents and their supporters even when taking military sanction against them.

And instead of macho proclamations about "arcs of extremism", we should be showing the whole Muslim world that we can genuinely and unthreateningly be their friends. That we can be friends of the Palestinians and the Lebanese, and loyal friends of Israel at the same time. It may be hard in the smoke of Haifa and Tyre to envisage this, but if a two-state solution is ever to be achieved, it is essential. The sooner we start dancing with wolves the better.

The writer was minister of state for Northern Ireland (1994-97)