The Hamas Lobby
A meeting was meant to take place on Wednesday, April 22nd, in the Grimond Room at Portcullis House, adjoining the House of Commons in London. The planned meeting was titled "Talk with Hamas" and was meant to feature a video link to Damascus.
Khaled Mashaal, leader of Hamas, was supposed to address members of Parliament and journalists via the link, but he failed, due to a technical glitch.
This planned meeting was the latest event in an ongoing and organized campaign to break the Western boycott of Hamas and transform policy toward the organization. Much energy is being expended in the UK. But London is only a way station, with the real prize being the transformation of the US stance.
This campaign is part of a larger effort to change the way that the West sees Islamist movements - and by doing so to bring many of the arguments made by such movements into the mainstream.
Who is behind this effort? The invitation to MPs to the Mashaal meeting came from the office of Independent MP Clare Short.
However, it was issued in the name of John, Lord Alderdice. This name immediately offers a pointer. Alderdice, a veteran Northern Irish politician, is head of the board of advisers of an organization called Conflicts Forum.
Conflicts Forum is jointly led by Alistair Crooke and Mark Perry. Crooke is a former British intelligence officer, while the US-based Perry is described by the organizations website as a 'military, intelligence and foreign affairs analyst'. It describes its aim as opening "a new relationship between the West and the Muslim world."
What this anodyne phrase means in practice is revealed in a remarkably frank document published by this group, in which it explains the means it intends to use to bring about the basic change in perception that will bring Hamas and Hizbullah into the mainstream.
The document notes the need to build a "link-up between activist groups and mobilizers of opinion in order to shift the debate on Islamism from a predominantly defensive posture to a positive assertion of Islamist values and thinking."
It suggests "articulation of Hamas's and Hizbullah's values, philosophy and wider political and social programs... Being more proactive in statements and rephrasing discourse to focus on the positive aspects of Islamist ideology."
The Conflicts Forum publication lays down a precise strategy for the promotion of Hamas and Hizbullah in the West - of which the meeting in the British Parliament forms a part.
The various PR devices suggested include "Use influential individuals - key Muslim personalities... use the Internet, DVD, interviews, podcasts... Link with mass organizations in Western countries - social movements, trade unions - to challenge hegemonic discourse. Approach editors of established journals... with a view to the possibility of them doing a special issue on Islamist thinking or on particular issues."
Undoubtedly, the attempted video link between Hamas HQ in Damascus and the Grimond Room in Portcullis House was meant to be a worthy contribution to this extensive effort to "re-brand" Hamas and Hizbullah.
The UK, and the EU as a whole, remain committed to the Quartet conditions which Hamas must meet to become a partner for dialogue. Hamas (or at least its "military wing") remains on the EU list of proscribed terror organizations.
A cursory observation of the backers of Conflicts Forum, however, reveals a curious paradox. In January 2007, the group proudly announced that it had been awarded a grant of €500,000 by the EU, to develop "more inclusive and legitimate approaches to transforming the Middle East conflict." More specifically, the project entails the "engagement" of "faith-based movements."
So the EU, while currently opposing "engagement" with Hamas, also appears to be offering financial support to a body engaged in lobbying for the organization.
How important are the efforts of Conflicts Forum and its associated groups? Are initiatives such as Wednesday's planned meeting likely to have a tangible effect on policy?
Britain has, of course, already announced that it intends to hold talks with Hizbullah. On Hamas, however, no immediate significant shift in British government policy looks likely.
The Hamas Lobby is busy and active. It encompasses former senior diplomats such as Sir Jeremy Greenstock, as well as the Conflicts Forum nexus.
Foreign Secretary Miliband has praised the Egyptian role in managing dialogue with Hamas in the following terms: "Others speak to Hamas. That's the right thing to do, and I think we should let the Egyptians take this forward."
A knowledgeable source noted that many in the Foreign Office consider that engagement with the group is a "matter of time."
Still, for as long as the US remains firmly committed to insisting that Hamas first abide by the three Quartet conditions (committing to nonviolence, recognizing Israel and accepting previous agreements and obligations), the UK is unlikely to openly break ranks. Differences might well surface if a Palestinian unity government were to be formed. But this too currently looks highly improbable.
Ultimately, the main obstacle to the success of Lord Alderdice, Clare Short and their friends in Conflicts Forum may well be the nature of their client. Hamas leaders have an unfortunate tendency to be candid regarding their movement's goals. This makes presenting the "positive aspects of Islamist ideology" something of a challenge.
Hamas "Foreign Minister" Mahmoud Zahar, for example, speaking last week, stated bluntly that "[Hamas] will never recognize the enemy in any way, shape or form."
A few months ago, the same speaker asserted that "they [Jews] have legitimized the murder of their own children by killing the children of Palestine... They have legitimized the killing of their people all over the world by killing our people."
Spinning statements of that kind into moderation would pose a challenge to the smoothest of PR operators. But as the planned Portcullis House meeting showed, Hamas possesses an experienced, well-oiled, well-funded (largely by the European taxpayer) lobby in the heart of London, in which it may take justifiable pride.
Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs Center at the Interdisciplinary Center, Herzliya