Saturday, 2 August 2014

Nick Clegg writes: It is time for the Israeli government to talk to Hamas

Today Nick Clegg has written for the Guardian about the situation in Gaza:

The daily images of human torment in Gaza have been harrowing and heartbreaking. More than 1,000 Palestinian civilians have been killed. Were it not for international aid rations, half the population would be without food. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children are seeking shelter in UN schools – over recent days we have seen that even those places offer little safety from the conflict.

As I said over two weeks ago, it is difficult to deny that Israeli military action appears disproportionate and, combined with the Gaza blockade, results in the collective suffering of the Palestinian people.

To be clear, Hamas cannot escape blame either. By hiding among the civilian population and stashing weapons in schools and mosques, Hamas is willing to sacrifice its own people for military advantage. They have shamefully invested tens of millions of pounds in a sophisticated network of tunnels through which they intend to terrorise Israeli civilians – money which could have been spent on schools, houses and clinics instead. In doing so, they are betraying the Palestinian people they claim to represent.

This tragedy is grimly familiar. This is the third major military operation in Gaza in six years, following Operation Cast Lead in 2008 and Operation Pillar of Defence in 2012 – which also culminated in ceasefires that sadly did little to address the underlying conflict. Both sides have settled into a routine that is as futile as it is deadly. Hamas’ rocket fire will never break Israel's resolve. Israel’s bombs will never end Palestinian resistance. Even if they manage to destroy Hamas, a similar movement will undoubtedly emerge from the destitution and despair of the blighted Gaza Strip. As in Northern Ireland, Bosnia and so many other similar conflicts, a zero-sum game will not bring peace. Only an understanding that all have to share the same space and the same destiny will.


The Israeli government may feel it has gained the upper hand with its most recent show of strength, but they should know from past experience that any feeling of stability will be short-lived.

I applaud former President Shimon Peres who has broken ranks in recent days and called for an end to military action. More Israeli and Palestinian politicians should find the courage to follow suit. But ceasefires are not peace (as I write this it is already unclear if the temporary ceasefire will hold). If Israel wants to secure lasting safety for its people it must use political will, not its military might, to break the cycle of periodic violence.

Prime Minister Netanyahu must now put Israel’s long-term, strategic self-interest ahead of short-term tactical military gains: it is time for the Israeli government to talk to the Hamas political leadership in Gaza. Israel’s refusal to engage with President Abbas’ new unity government, because it has Hamas in it, must also now be reversed.

I am certainly not the first to make this suggestion. In 2008, former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy called for the same, recognising that in spite of heavy losses Hamas would not be cowed into submission and that a new approach was needed. Six years and three military operations and ceasefires later, the case for direct talks is all the more pressing.

As Israel's military might is most brutally confirmed, the need for a new political approach is most urgently required. Hamas is vulnerable and broke. Until forming a unity government with Fatah a few months ago, Hamas could no longer pay the salaries of doctors and teachers. They were facing growing discontent from ordinary Gazans. Hamas is isolated in the Arab world, with nowhere to turn. Israel cannot destroy militant Palestinian opposition – that much we have seen – but it does now have an opportunity to drive a wedge between the political and military wings of Hamas.

An unexpected act of political magnanimity, not sporadic military reprisal, would also garner Israel international support.

In writing this, I know I will provoke some anger. I will receive letters and emails arguing that I should not suggest Israel reward terrorists with talks. I understand that reaction and recognise the sense of existential fear that exists among the Israeli people. But my question is this: given that repeated military action has repeatedly failed to prevent rocket attacks against innocent Israelis, surely it is time to take a different approach?

Modern history teaches that you cannot shoot, occupy or besiege your way to lasting security. Peace only ever flows from a process of sustained and stubborn engagement. When the Queen shook hands with Martin McGuiness two years ago, this previously unthinkable gesture reminded us that even the most intractable conflicts can be resolved. However it is only possible when enemies acknowledge the futility of semi permanent conflict and meet face to face.

In the end, there is no surrogate to the security which peace can bring. In the wake of yet more bloodshed and instability, it is overwhelmingly in the interests of both sides to turn away from this deathly embrace – for the sake of the people of Gaza and the people of Israel too.