- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 22, 2009

LONDON (AP) - It promises to be one of the British Parliament’s more controversial question and answer sessions.

The leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas plans an unprecedented video link address to British lawmakers Wednesday, part of a campaign to persuade the West to talk to his party if it wants peace in the Middle East.

Khaled Mashaal, who is living in exile in Syria, will answer questions for lawmakers inside a Parliament meeting room. Event organizers hope the session will help persuade the U.S. and European governments to review policy toward Hamas.

Several European governments, however, said Tuesday they had no plans to open contacts with Hamas.

Britain, along with the United States and the European Union, regards Hamas as a terrorist organization and refuses to hold talks with the group. Hamas has held power in the Gaza Strip since 2007, when it violently seized control and expelled forces loyal to moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who still rules the West Bank.

But a group of six British lawmakers who met with Mashaal last month in Syria say opening a new dialogue could be crucial to winning a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Anyone who genuinely wants to see peace in the Middle East ought to listen to what he has to say, and engage with him _ he is a powerful figure” said Lynne Jones, a lawmaker with Britain’s governing Labour Party who traveled to Syria.

British lawmakers have stepped up pressure on Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s government after it opted last month to reach out to the political wing of the militant group Hezbollah.

London cut contact with the group in 2005 and listed its military arm as a terrorist organization. But British officials have begun meetings with Hezbollah lawmakers aimed at encouraging the group to shun violence.

Several European governments, including Britain, say they plan no change in policy toward Hamas.

“Hamas is a terrorist organization. They fire rockets at innocent civilians. They put ordinary Palestinians in harm’s way,” Britain’s Foreign Office said in a statement. “We believe that to talk to Hamas directly at this time would simply undermine those Palestinians who are committed to peace.”

Germany’s Foreign Ministry said there would be no change in policy until Hamas meets demands from the Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators _ the U.N., the U.S., the European Union and Russia _ to renounce violence and recognize Israel’s right to exist.

In Israel, Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor criticized the planned session. “It is regrettably ironic that a man who could never receive an entry visa to Britain because he is considered a terrorist would have the privilege to address MPs in parliament, thanks to new technologies,” Palmor said.

Britain’s main opposition Conservative Party said it has complained that Parliamentary facilities were being used for the talk.

“We are seriously concerned at the proposed event,” said David Lidington, a main opposition Conservative party lawmaker and spokesman on foreign affairs. “Hamas remains a proscribed terrorist organization under U.K. law.”

Independent lawmaker Clare Short, an ex-Labour Cabinet minister, said legislators were under no obligation to attend the session. A small group was expected and no explicit approval was needed to book the meeting room.

British officials said Mashaal would be almost certain to be refused entry to Britain if he attempted to visit in person.

“This is an opportunity for parliamentarians in the U.K. to judge for themselves whether to attend and to hear for themselves what Hamas has to say,” Short said, in an e-mailed statement.

Analysts claim the impact of Israel’s 22-day air and ground war in Gaza, which ended earlier this year, and the failure of Egyptian-brokered reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah _ which controls the West Bank _ make any change in current Western diplomacy unlikely.

Claire Spencer, head of the Middle East program at London’s Chatham House think tank, said opening dialogue with Hamas isn’t a priority for the West. Both Egypt and Norway already hold talks with Hamas ministers.

“It’s not so much who we speak to, but which pieces of the jigsaw we can get round the table to make progress on a two-state solution,” Spencer said.


Associated Press Writer Rachel Nolan in Berlin contributed to this report.

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