France and Hamas Backchannel Talks

Le Figaro revealed today that a retired French diplomat, formerly head of the Middle East bureau at the Quai d’Orsay, met with high-ranking Hamas officials last month. By informing the French government of the talks after the fact, Yves Aubin de La Messuzière allowed Nicolas Sarkozy to maintain his official stance of refusing to personally engage an organization committed in principle to Israel’s destruction. At the same time, the gathering consensus within the French foreign policy community is that isolation has not achieved the desired policy modifications, so a formal engagement with Hamas is at this point inevitable. The backchannel talks are an effort to secure the most favorable conditions for when that takes place.

France broke off diplomatic contact with Hamas last June, following the armed seizure of the Gaza Strip. It reauthorized official diplomatic contact the following August, but that has been limited so far to its intelligence services. Its delicate navigation of the issue most notably mirrors that of Israel, and reflects the ways in which everyone is struggling to find a way to get out from under the tough rhetoric which is about the only thing left of the failed policy of isolation. According to Messuzière, Hamas expressed its willingness to accept a Palestinian state with the 1967 frontiers (which he equated to a tacit acceptance of Israel’s right to exist, but tacit is the operative word), promised an end to suicide bombings, and recognized the legitimacy of Mahmoud Abbas as the head of the Palestinian Authority.

I’m not particularly optimistic or naive about the outcome of negotiations with Hamas. Mahmoud Abbas already tried it, with the obvious results. The problem is that refusing to negotiate with them hasn’t achieved anything better. So it would seem that Einstein’s famous definition of insanity (doing the same while hoping for different results) applies to both sides of this equation.

Still, we can’t continue to unilaterally write half of the Palestinian people out of the solution to this problem and expect it to magically go away. Once Israel’s backchannel contacts with Hamas are officially recognized, it will give everyone else more room to maneuver. The fact that France, which has historically been considered sympathetic to the Palestinians, has under Sarkozy gone to great lengths to reassure Israel of its support, could prove instrumental to finding a new way forward.