Middle East Eye / November 19, 2021
Former UK prime minister and Middle East envoy made offer to Khaled Meshaal during series of meetings in Doha in 2015.
Former British prime minister Tony Blair invited the then-leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, to London for talks aimed at brokering an end to the siege of Gaza.
The invitation was made during a series of meetings between the two men which Middle East Eye understands took place both when Blair was working as an envoy for the Middle East Quartet and after he quit the diplomatic role in May 2015.
Details about Blair’s engagement with Hamas leaders are likely to be an embarrassment to the British government which on Friday announced plans to proscribe the Palestinian resistance movement as a terrorist organization.
They also pose a dilemma for Keir Starmer, the current leader of the Labour Party, who has expressed staunch support for Israel and admiration for Blair, when the proposed proscription comes before the House of Commons on Wednesday.
A specific date for the London visit in June 2015 was proposed during talks between Blair and Meshaal, then head of Hamas’s political bureau, in Doha earlier that year. MEE reported at the time that Blair had met Meshaal at least four times in the Qatari capital.
Sources told MEE that Blair and other officials led Meshaal to understand that the invitation to visit London was an official one proffered with the knowledge of then-British prime minister David Cameron and American officials.
Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since elections in 2006 and a subsequent military victory over the rival Fatah movement, declined the invitation however.
Sources told MEE that officials were divided over whether or not to accept it.
Some saw the trip as a propaganda opportunity and a chance for Hamas to press its case to be removed from the European Union’s terrorism list.
But others were wary of being sucked into the failed Oslo peace process, and of Blair’s connections to the United Arab Emirates and to Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.
According to senior Hamas officials, Blair engaged Meshaal on a variety of fronts. At the time Hamas was preparing to publish a declaration of principles which revised its 1988 charter to establish a Palestinian state within 1967 borders. Blair offered to take the draft document to Washington. Meshaal refused the offer.
Blair was appointed Middle East envoy for the Quartet, consisting of the United States, the United Nations, Russia and the European Union, shortly after stepping down as prime minister in 2007.
The Quartet’s mandate includes mediating Middle East peace negotiations and preparing the ground for the establishment of a Palestinian state – but it refuses to deal with Hamas because the organization does not recognize Israel and because of its commitment to armed struggle against Israeli occupation.
After quitting the Quartet role, Blair announced in November 2015 he would continue to campaign for an agreement between Israel and Palestine as a private citizen and said his new role allowed him to hold frank discussions on all sides.
Asked at the time about reports about his meetings with Meshaal, he said: “I am not going to comment on those other than to say that what I have found since leaving the Quartet role is it has been easier to have conversations of complete frankness with people.
“Since I have the relationships, people may be prepared to be more forthcoming than when they think you are representing [the Quartet]. “
He also expressed regret in 2017 that the UK and other western countries had excluded Hamas from the negotiating table and supported Israel’s blockade of Gaza – and acknowledged the UK had maintained an informal dialogue with the group.
“In retrospect I think we should have, right at the very beginning, tried to pull [Hamas] into a dialogue and shifted their positions. I think that’s where I would be in retrospect,” Blair told journalist Donald McIntyre in comments reported by the Guardian newspaper.
“But obviously it was very difficult, the Israelis were very opposed to it. But you know we could have probably worked out a way whereby we did – which in fact we ended up doing anyway, informally.”
McIntyre reported that Blair had also held talks with Ismail Haniyeh, Meshaal’s successor as head of Hamas’s political bureau. MEE understands that Blair has met Hamas leaders at least seven times with talks often going on late into the night.
Other British officials attended Blair’s meetings in Doha with Hamas, a further indication that the UK government was fully aware of the talks.
Other Blair-era officials have also criticized the exclusion of Hamas from negotiations aimed at securing Middle Eastern peace.
In 2017, Jack Straw, Blair’s former foreign secretary, suggested that he had been removed from the post in 2006 after expressing support for talks with Hamas in off-the-record remarks to journalists.
“I am unhappy about our boycotting of Hamas. I talked off the record to some journalists in Riyadh in early 2006 and said we ought to be talking to Hamas,” he told a Middle East Monitor conference in London, adding that “Some people say I was removed from the post of foreign secretary” because of the remarks.
‘Occupation is terrorism’
Hamas on Friday condemned the UK government over its plans to proscribe its political wing as a terrorist group. The military wing of the movement, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, has been proscribed in the UK since 2001.
“Resisting occupation by all available means, including armed resistance, is a right granted to people under occupation as stated by the international law,” it said in a statement.
“Instead of apologizing and correcting its historical sin against the Palestinian people, whether in the ominous Balfour Declaration or the British Mandate that handed over Palestinian land to the Zionist movement, Britain supports the aggressors at the expense of the victims.
“The occupation is terrorism. Killing the indigenous population, displacing them by force, demolishing their homes and imprisoning them is terrorism.”
Hamas’s proscription in the UK would not necessarily outlaw further meetings between Blair or other British nationals and Hamas officials under terrorism legislation.
Explanatory notes for prosecutors considering whether someone found to have met with members of a designated terrorist group should be prosecuted suggest that “genuinely benign” meetings provide a legal defence.
Examples given of “genuinely benign” meetings include “a meeting at which the terrorist activities of the group are not promoted or encouraged, for example, a meeting designed to encourage a designated group to engage in a peace process or facilitate delivery of humanitarian aid”.
Middle East Eye has contacted Blair’s office for comment.
David Hearst is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Middle East Eye