Leading article: The Middle East starts to feel the Obama effect

The new US President’s overtures are eliciting a promising response

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Sooner or later it had to happen: someone had to start talking to Hamas. Today we report that a back channel already exists. French parliamentarians have met the Hamas leader, Khaled Meshal, with Syria as the go-between. MPs from other European countries, including Britain, have met lower-level Hamas representatives since the start of the year. This makes perfect sense. It is the way all pariah groups or states are enticed in from the cold. Negotiations begin unofficially, through third parties and with the necessary element of deniability.

Hamas, it can be argued, should never have found itself in the pariah category. It was encouraged to take part in the Palestinian parliamentary elections, only to be cold-shouldered by the United States, then by Israel and the European Union, when it won. That was a mistake.

There are grounds on which Hamas should have been banned from participating: its refusal to recognise Israel’s right to exist. Once it had been admitted to the electoral process, and the voting had been deemed reasonably free and fair, the result had to be respected. This failure is responsible for much that came next, and helped push Hamas back to extremism.

Almost everything about the isolation of Hamas has proved counter-productive. The division of the Palestinians between the Fatah-governed West Bank and Hamas-controlled Gaza further complicated the already limping Middle East peace process. The Hamas government’s failure to prevent rocket attacks from Gaza precipitated Israel’s invasion. With no tangible return from signing up to democracy, Hamas had no reason to modify its stance on Israel, or anything else.

If a serious European effort is being made to explore a formal opening to Hamas, that is to be encouraged. If, as is possible, such overtures have the blessing of the United States, that is even better. And if, as other signals suggest, a tentative unclenching of fists – to quote Barack Obama – is taking place across the region in response to his extended hand, then more is in flux, in a positive way, than for a very long time.

After an initially chilly dismissal, President Ahmadinejad of Iran expressed a willingness to talk to the United States, on certain conditions. What is more, he did so as publicly as he could, at a rally to mark the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. In recent days, the Syrian President, too, has spoken optimistically about improved relations with the US.

A high-level congressional delegation is due in Damascus this week, and a new US ambassador is expected to be named shortly – the first since Washington downgraded relations in 2005. In hailing a possible improvement in relations, President Assad and senior officials have emphasised that Syria is key to any Middle East peace. Damascus has also made known that General David Petraeus, head of US Central Command, would be welcome in Syria to discuss the situation in Iraq – a proposal that President Bush had vetoed.

With so much, it seems, suddenly in play, it is unfortunate that Israel should be tied up in the aftermath of another inconclusive election. What happens next is likely to depend on the complexion of the new Israeli government and its willingness to adapt to the fresh mood. But it need not depend on Israel alone. With the United States, the European Union, Iran, Syria and Hamas all showing an interest in talking, there could be an opportunity here for a fresh beginning. It is an opportunity that should on no account be passed up.

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