The ambiguity of diplomacy

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The Independent Online

When the Government wishes to make its position on an issue of particular sensitivity as clear as the thickest mud, it has the ideal man for the job. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, can be relied upon to lose his listeners within seconds, then leave utter confusion in his wake.

When the Government wishes to make its position on an issue of particular sensitivity as clear as the thickest mud, it has the ideal man for the job. The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, can be relied upon to lose his listeners within seconds, then leave utter confusion in his wake.

Thus we were not entirely sure, after he sat down in the Commons on Monday, whether the promised referendum on the European constitution was merely postponed or definitely off. Ditto, when he spoke yesterday about British diplomatic contacts with the Palestinian militant organisation, Hamas. Had British officials met representatives of Hamas or had they not? Was Britain softening its attitude to what the European Union has designated a terrorist organisation? It was hard to tell.

On this occasion, however, there was method in the muddle. Yes, junior British diplomats had met two members of Hamas, though not as representatives of that organisation but as elected mayors of their towns. And no, Britain had not softened its attitude to Hamas, because Britain, unlike the EU, distinguishes between the military and political wings of Hamas. It has proscribed the one but not the other, as with the IRA and Sinn Fein.

Mr Straw was also able to say categorically - and, we trust, accurately - that there would be no "dealings" with Hamas leaders unless they renounce violence and abandon the call in their charter for the destruction of Israel. Thus, talks may take place with Hamas representatives, but not in their official capacity; there may be soundings, but no negotiations.

Of such useful ambiguities, as Mr Straw (almost) made clear, are diplomatic overtures made. Thus are feelers extended to politically unacceptable, but influential groups - the category into which Hamas fits today. It is the largest Palestinian Islamic organisation. It has a popular following, to the point where it is challenging the supremacy of Fatah. It is important to know how it thinks, how it is organised and how far the political and military wings are distinct. Its commitment to joining mainstream politics needs to be tested further.

Israel's refusal to have contact with Hamas at this stage is understandable, as is the censure it heaps on those who do. The missile attack in Gaza, which was Hamas's response to the postponement of July elections, was the mark of a terrorist organisation, not a responsible party in the making. Yet arguably, the absence of contact between Israel and Hamas makes careful overtures from outsiders more important. When so much in the Middle East is shifting, and when EU and US officials are also reliably reported to have contacted Hamas, it would be shortsighted for Britain not to do the same.

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