4 May 2006 - DEALING WITH ISLAMISTS: ENGAGEMENT OR ISOLATION? [Press Release]
Current tensions in the Middle East and their impact on dialogue and cooperation across the Mediterranean were the main focus of the 12th Mediterranean Dialogue Seminar of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, held in Istanbul, 2-3 May, and gathering more than 50 parliamentarians from NATO countries and partners from the Middle East and North Africa.
In particular, legislators debated the problem of relations with Islamist movements and parties, such as Hamas, which has recently been democratically elected and has formed a government in the Palestinian territories. Alastair Crooke of the London-based NGO Conflicts Forum, in his keynote presentation, strongly encouraged Western parliamentarians and governments to open dialogue with Hamas and to avoid isolating it. The victory of Hamas, he said, represented the rupture of Palestinian trust that the international community "will do the right thing by us" and a shift to self-reliance. Mr. Crooke also warned about the danger of cutting financial aid to the Palestinian Authority, which would push Palestinians to endorse extremist Islamist movements, the "revolutionaries", in his definition---as opposed to the "revivalist" Hamas. "If Hamas fails", he warned, "we will not be dealing with Fatah, but with al Qaeda".
Sharon Pardo of Ben Gurion University indicated that the election of a Hamas government reinforced the new Israeli government's determination in pursuing a policy of unilateralism with regard to relations with the Palestinians. In addition, he said, this marked the definitive failure of the Road Map and required a complete re-thinking of the policy of the Quartet.
Developments in Israeli-Palestinian relations, NATO legislators convened, sit badly with current tensions over Iran and its insistence on developing a complete nuclear fuel cycle, and the possibility that the situation will deteriorate further. Mr. Crooke again argued that the international community has not yet exhausted the diplomatic options in its dealings with Tehran. In this, as in relations with moderate Islamists, many contributors argued that dialogue and diplomacy are urgently needed.
Legislators in Istanbul also discussed the role of parliaments in Arab countries. As Robert Springborg, Director of the London Middle East Institute, indicated, such role is still far from being central to the political systems of these countries, but is nevertheless increasing, thanks in part to the rise and integration of moderate Islamist parties. In this respect, he also underlined the positive effect on the role of parliaments provided by contacts between Arab legislators and their Western counterparts in the context of interparliamentary dialogue.
NATO parliamentarians agreed that they wished to continue playing a constructive role and providing a forum for dialogue with their colleagues in the Middle East and North Africa region. There was no agreement, however, on how to pursue the Assembly's relationship with the Palestinian Legislative Council, due to the presence of Hamas in its ranks. The issue will be further discussed by the NATO PA Standing Committee when it meets in Paris at the end of May.