"If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth only soap and wishful thinking to begin, and in the end, despair." C.S. Lewis
Is the Palestinian Islamist organisation Hamas about to give up its strategy of armed resistance? Hopes were raised when Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal told Al Jazeera on 26 December 2011 that "all forms of resistance, especially armed resistance [i.e. the path of terrorism], are our right, but now, during the Arab Spring, we prefer the popular resistance and to focus instead on a unified strategy of popular resistance."
I would be the first to dance a jig if there was a genuine rethink on the part of Hamas. A 'new Hamas' would indeed bring comfort. It would open the way to Palestinian unity and the extension of the West Bank nation-building strategy to Gaza. And it would boost the search for a two state solution, as well as encouraging other Islamist movements to give up violence. These are all glittering prizes, to be sure.
But it's all 'a bit previous'. And in the Middle East, as in life, it's all about the timing. If European politicians get the timing wrong and drop the 'no-contact' policy too soon they could put back the clock on progress, inflict tremendous damage on the peace process and the undermine moderate politics throughout the region.
For four reasons, now is not to time bringing Hamas in from the cold.
First, Hamas is more likely responding tactically to short-term pressures not rethinking its basic strategy
The Arab Spring has created both threats and opportunities for Hamas. The uprising against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime has undermined a key patron of Hamas which hosts its political bureau in Damascus.
Hamas is caught between its loyalty to Assad and its affiliation with the Muslim Brotherhood, whose spiritual leader, Sheikh Yussuf Al Qaradawi, has openly backed the uprising against Assad. Hamas chose its spiritual leader (which casts an interesting sidelight in itself) and lost its patron and its headquarters. It seeks a new home in places - Cairo, Amman, Qatar - that do not want to hear talk of armed resistance.
The conflict in Syria is widely seen in the Arab world as a sectarian confrontation - a majority Sunni population being suppressed by a non-Sunni, Alawite minority. Hamas's failure to identify with Assad has led Iran - which has a strategic alliance with the Assad regime - to reportedly cut back its financial support to Hamas. This has contributed to financial strain on Hamas, which was already suffering from a decline in revenue from smuggling after Israel relaxed many of its restrictions on imports to Gaza.
The Arab Spring has also re-energised Palestinian society to demand political unity between the Hamas regime in Gaza and the Fatah-dominated PA in the West Bank. This has prompted Hamas to sound more conciliatory on the issue of Palestinian unity, to be more ready to accept Egyptian intervention in Palestinian affairs and to seek ways to improve its standing in Palestinian public opinion. These factors partly explain the sudden conclusion of the deal to free Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit last October. It may also explain Meshaal's talk of a new non-violent Hamas.
Second, Hamas is not speaking with one voice
Not all the Hamas leadership in Gaza is in agreement with the Damascus-based Meshaal. Addressing a crowd in Gaza on 14 December, Gaza prime minister Ismail Haniyeh said, "Today, we say, in a clear and unambiguous fashion: the armed resistance and armed struggle are our strategic choice and our path to liberate the Palestinian land, from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River, and to drive the usurping invaders out of the blessed land of Palestine." He added, "The fact that Hamas, at one stage or another, accepts the goal of gradual liberation - of Gaza, of the West Bank, or of Jerusalem - is not at the expense of our strategic vision with regard to the land of Palestine."
Hamas's internal leadership was angered at Meshaal's December 26 pronouncement. Senior Gazan Hamas official Mahmoud al-Zahar has been scornful of the attempts at reconciliation with Fatah and objected in principle to the call for popular resistance, which he said was not relevant in Gaza as it is no longer under occupation. Ahmed Jaabri, leader of the Hamas military wing in Gaza, is also believed to be increasingly independent from Hamas's external leadership, and was a key figure determining the outcome of the Shalit deal.
Perhaps significantly, Meshaal has now announced that he does not wish to stand again for the leadership of Hamas's political bureau.
Third, Hamas-in-Gaza is exploring a reconciliation with Palestinian Islamic Jihad
While the much-hyped 'reconciliation' between the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank is advancing at a snail's pace, there have been merger talks between Hamas's Gaza-based leadership and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
PIJ is a terrorist organisation even more extreme than Hamas, which has avoided participation in PA elections and is closely tied, financially and ideologically, to Iran. It has been growing in military strength over the last year and poses an increasing challenge to Hamas's authority in Gaza.
Fourth, if the West dropped its non-contact policy now that would fatally undermine the moderates
In the Middle East, as in life, timing is all. And for Europe to drop its non-contact policy with Hamas at this time would undermine President Abbas and the regional moderates.
There is no reason for us to fall into despair. Hamas may yet reconcile its Islamist ideology with a permanent renunciation of violence and acceptance of Israel. But there is no place for C.S Lewis' "soft soap and wishful thinking." However much we may wish it to be true, there is currently no evidence that the underlying position of Hamas has changed. It remains focused on securing its ability to rule in Gaza, reversing the clampdown on its activities at the hands of the PA in the West Bank, assuming leadership of the Palestinian national movement and gaining international legitimacy, without giving up on its core ideological principles.
We should monitor Hamas and encourage those who seek to push the organisation in a new direction. As regards to engagement it is not a case of if, but when. But right now there are just too many contradictory messages coming out of this turbulent and hitherto violent organisation to allow any western politician to take any risks. All policy makers should remember that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.