He stepped in from the harsh sunlight of Egypt. He had just crossed the Sinai with two Arab friends, one of whom had died during the journey. The news that he and his friend brought was of huge import. This slight figure, still dusty and grimed from travel by camel, stepped from the Cairo hubbub into the cool interior with his companion and strode across to the bar for water.
The interior with its comfortable leather chairs, white linen and discreet servants breathed the comfort and certainty of upper class England. The barman gave a disdainful glance at the pair: “What is he doing in here? he demanded to know, glaring at the Arab. Lawrence had come to the officers’ mess at the British military headquarters in Cairo to tell General Edmund Allenby that the Arab army had done what no one believed was possible: it had crossed the Nefu desert to take the Turkish army by surprise, with Turkish guns faced only outward toward the sea. He had taken Aqaba! This mattered little however in the Officers’ mess in Cairo: Lawrence had actually brought his Arab companion to the bar to demand water! Another club, the International Quartet, reacted with similar disdain and indignation to the news that- against an entrenched power structure- an unexpected figure had walked in on their officers’ mess: Hamas had won the Palestinian elections that the Quartet had prescribed as part of its “road map.
An Islamist movement was seeking Western recognition of their popular mandate! Like most clubs, the Quartet sets its rules- post hoc if necessary- to keep out those who do not quite “fit in to its ethos. Hamas would need to comply with three hurriedly agreed-upon conditions if any club member were to speak to the new candidate. At its meeting in New York in September, however, it became clear that even if the new candidate did comply with the three new club rules and abandoned its mandate to allow more “respectable albeit unelected persons to govern in its place, this still would not allow the new sanitized government to “step in.
A European Union member who participated said that if a sanitized arrangement were to be formed under the guise of a Palestinian national unity government, and club rules were appropriately reflected by this government, “stepping in was still not assured: the Quartet would first need to scrutinize the suitability of each minister- to ensure, presumably, that each of them fitted with the club ethos.
Additionally, the club wanted assurances that the new government knows how to behave: ministers are not required to wear ties, but their policy guidelines would be vetted. Only if these additional scrutinies were positive would the Quartet consider whether to talk to the new candidate. The Quartet saw the language drafted in New York this September as a big step forward. But suddenly, the three conditions imposed on Hamas have become five. In addition to recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and a commitment to past agreements (whether or not they represent flawed and failed instruments), Hams must now also accept Quartet validation for ministers in a new government and for its policy guidelines. The metaphor of an officers’ club may seem a harsh parallel to draw in respect to the Quartet, but it reflects two aspects of its current posture that are important to draw out. The first and this has been a persistent trait- has been its disconnect from reality with its smug officers’ mess ethos; and the second has been its failure to do politics, or as Senator George Mitchell used to say, to do the “choreography.
That is, it is easy to post new rules and make declarations, but it is much harder to do the hard diplomatic work that is necessary for political progress. This requires talking, and of course Quartet members have determined that they cannot talk to those with whom it is necessary to resolve the present impasse. On the basis of the Quartet’s reluctance either to do choreography or to reflect reality, it is likely that candidate Hamas, like Lawrence’s Arab companion, will not be welcomed into the club. Quartet members, however, might care to reflect on the past. That earlier officers’ club, which was so remote in its cool white linen Britishness and did not think Muslims should play a part in deliberations about the future of Muslim societies, was swept aside by events.
The bar at which Lawrence’s Arab companion was refused water after his journey from Aqaba in 1916 gave place to a hotel. That hotel, which became a refuge for European elites visiting Cairo, has now also been swept away. If the Quartet persists in its present vein it should not be surprised if before long voices are heard asking why Muslims are not a part of this “white man’s club that decides on the legitimacy of election outcomes and the future of their society. And the answer to the question “what is he doing here, will be obvious: They happen to live here.
Alastair Crooke is a director of Conflicts Forum. He participated at a number of Quartet meetings in the period up until 2003 to comment on the situation on the ground in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. This commentary first appeared at bitterlemons-international.org, an online newsletter.