Martin hints EU may need to be flexible on Hamas


MINISTER FOR Foreign Affairs Micheál Martin has hinted during a visit to the Middle East that some sort of engagement with Hamas may have to feature in future EU policy on the Israeli- Palestinian conflict.

Mr Martin told reporters in Damascus yesterday that several key regional players had made representations to the EU since the end of last month’s conflict in Gaza.

“What was clear . . . was the request to Europe to be flexible in terms of how one approaches what emerges from this process . . . not to be absolutist,” the Minister said.

While stressing that the current EU position on Hamas calls for it to renounce violence and recognise the state of Israel before any engagement occurs, Mr Martin spoke of the possibility of a “flexibility of mindset” towards the aim of “getting practical work done on the ground, in terms of rebuilding Gaza”.

Asked by The Irish Times if such a “flexible” approach may at some stage involve some level of engagement with Hamas, the Minister replied: “Until we see what emerges from the various interlocutors and the various discussions going on between the parties, it is too early to say. The main point I’m making is we cannot just close the door if we don’t like certain aspects.” He said the EU will have to respond to what emerges from the current talks “in a way that enhances the durability of the ceasefire, and also enhances the environment which would then lead to genuine Palestinian unity and also a substantial political process.”

Mr Martin, who gave a joint press conference with Syrian counterpart Walid al-Muallem after holding separate meetings with Mr al-Muallem and Syria’s president, Bashar al-Assad, said one reason for his trip to Damascus was to weigh up the Syrian government’s perspective on Hamas’s position following the Gaza conflict.

“Part of my engagement in the region, and our discussions today . . . is to ascertain, get some sense, of whether Hamas is open for substantial political talks and ending violence,” Mr Martin said, at which point the Syrian foreign minister interjected: “In this region we call it resistance.”

Mr Martin, whose visit to Damascus yesterday marked the beginning of his second trip to the Middle East since becoming Minister for Foreign Affairs, described his meetings with Syrian officials as “effective and fruitful”.

“We in Ireland recognise and realise the strategic importance of Syria . . . and the strategic role it has to play in terms of the ultimate resolution of the issues in the region,” he told the Syrian media.

Grand Mufti Ahmed Badreddin Hassun, Syria’s most senior Sunni cleric, told Mr Martin during a meeting that this year would prove “crucial” for the region, and he expressed fears that “the situation will explode again” if Israel continues its blockade of Gaza.

During talks with Syria’s deputy prime minister Abdullah Dardari, Mr Martin stressed the potential for increased trade as a result of stronger bilateral relations between the two countries.

He invited Mr Dardari to head a trade delegation to Ireland focusing on business and educational opportunities.