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Speaking to the enemy, but why now?

Palestinian and Egyptian media agencies reported this week that the outgoing Quartet Envoy and former British Prime Minister Tony Blair met with Khaled Meshaal in Doha recently. Since neither party has confirmed or denied the reports, it seems very likely that the two men did actually meet.

Was it surprising that Blair would shake hands with Meshaal? Not really; Jonathan Powell, a former political advisor to Blair recalls in his book "Talking to Terrorists" that during a 1997 meeting with Irish Republican leaders Gerry Adams and Martin Mc Guinness, he declined to shake their hands. Tony Blair, however, "was more sensible and shook hands normally as if he were meeting any other human being." Which, of course, he was.

After leaving Downing Street in 2007, Powell proposed publicly that Britain should talk to Hamas and even Al-Qaida. Given the compelling case he makes for dialogue it is understandable that a meeting with Meshaal was always going to be on the cards. But why now?

There could be any number of reasons. Some may say that after eight years of missed opportunities, Blair is determined to make one last attempt to secure his legacy as the international peace envoy. However, any talk of a comprehensive and lasting peace between Palestinians and Israelis is off the agenda. Barak Obama conceded recently that it would not happen in the remainder of his presidency, and Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Ya'alon has said not in his life time.

In the current circumstances, though, there seems to be an emerging consensus in western capitals to push for a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel. The situation in the Gaza Strip, which is effectively still under Hamas control, remains volatile; a recent poll shows that most Israelis expect their army to launch another war sooner rather than later.

In recent weeks, there has been a constant procession of western officials to the coastal territory, including German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. The EU Special Representative for the Middle East peace process, Fernando Gentilini, visited the blockaded Gaza Strip on Thursday, the first such visit by the official. From the UN there have also been pleas and warnings from Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, urging both Israel and Egypt to end their cruel blockade.

Evidently, then, the people of Gaza are neither alone nor forgotten. International solidarity activists have once again taken to the seas from Europe in an attempt to break the blockade and halt the process of what Israeli historian Ilan Pappé decries as the "incremental genocide" of the Palestinians in the territory.

Despite the prevailing risk of conflict, the truth is that neither Hamas nor the Israelis want a military confrontation this summer. The former knows very well that the people in Gaza have made immeasurable sacrifices in recent years and need both a breathing space and time to rebuild their shattered lives. The Israelis, likewise, paid a heavy price during last year's misadventure. Indeed, the remains of some of their soldiers are still unaccounted for, which carries great meaning for the people of Israel.

This is where Tony Blair comes into the picture. He is not known to be a fan of Khaled Meshaal. Like many in the west, he believes that after Hamas lost its base in Syria and with it much support from Iran, the movement would be ready now more than at any time in the past to make concessions.

Blair's decision to talk to the enemy cannot be taken lightly. He must have agonised before deciding to make his move. Furthermore, he would not have carried out such an undertaking without the approval of the Israelis whose interests he has served dutifully throughout his tenure as Quartet envoy.

Something, then, appears to be taking place behind the scenes with regards to Gaza. The people there have been patient and it looks like their sacrifices are about to bear some fruit. The diplomatic trick will be to devise a formula to end the siege without Israel and Egypt losing too much face. Last week's decision by an Egyptian court to overturn a previous ruling which classified Hamas as a terrorist organisation is, to all intents and purposes, an important step in that direction.

We do not know exactly what passed between Blair and Meshaal, but we can surmise that the outgoing Quartet envoy must be after something. Unlike most countries in the Arab world, Palestine has not seen the emergence of the scourge of ISIS. Despite all its troubles, Hamas has shown that it has been able to contain extremist forces in Gaza, but for how long can it do so under the interminable siege? For Tony Blair and those behind him, it is obviously preferable to deal with the enemy they know than the one they don't, which would explain why he went to speak with Khaled Meshaal. What's still uncertain is, why now?

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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