IN an underground car park in the centre of Beirut, a bald man emerged from his Mercedes, surrounded by a phalanx of armed bodyguards.
As deputy leader of Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, Musa Abu Marzouk is a potential target for assassination by Israel. Yet there to greet him last week was Alistair Crooke, a veteran of nearly 30 years with MI6 and until recently a European Union negotiator with the Palestinians.
As they made their way upstairs, they were joined by several Americans, some of them former members of the CIA and others with links to the US administration. They had gathered in the Lebanese capital for an initiative launched by Crooke: the first talks for more than 10 years between senior Americans and radical groups denounced as terrorists by Washington.
Although still defiant in their anti-American rhetoric, the militants were staking a claim to be part of the so-called “Arab spring” of democratic change that has encompassed elections in Iraq and protests in Lebanon against the presence of Syrian forces.
The Beirut meeting was attended by almost half the leadership of Hamas, which has used suicide bombers in Israel but is taking part in Palestinian parliamentary elections this summer.
The delegation from Hezbollah, which has elected members of the Lebanese parliament but remains a terrorist organisation in the eyes of the United States, included Nawaf Moussawi, the group’s chief political negotiator.
There were also representatives from Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which is banned in many countries, and from the Jamiat-i-Islami party in Pakistan.
Among the US delegates was Frederic Hof, staff director of a 2001 commission on the Palestinian intifada led by George Mitchell, a former senator. They also included Bobby Muller, a Vietnam veteran and joint winner of the 1997 Nobel peace prize for his campaign against landmines.
Israel was not slow to condemn the meeting, accusing the American delegates of “extreme naivety” in imagining that they could draw groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah on to a peaceful path. “It does no good to appease or negotiate with such terrorists,” a government spokesman said.
Crooke said the Americans were there to listen and not to give advice, and emphasised that they did not represent “anyone but themselves”. The results of the two-day meeting would be passed to the Bush administration, he said.
Not really that much information aside from the meeting taking place, which I suppose is interesting in itself. (Stephen first wrote about this meeting in December.) Alistair Crooke has been a central player to getting the various Palestinian factions to talk to each other, operating out of the EU but apparently also under close supervision from Tony Blair's office. I have heard him credited for getting the Egyptians to push forward with the negotiations, which seemed to have culminated last week with a ceasefire. What I find most interesting about all this is that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has been invited. I've thought for a while that one of the riskiest elements of the Gaza withdrawal for Egypt is the prospect of Hamas rising there, because of the organization's historic links with the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt's role in policing Gaza post-withdrawal, and the potential that it could be in the middle of a civil war between the PA and Hamas, could have repercussions back home. The presence of the Brotherhood at this meeting -- which I hear has been OKayed by the Egyptians -- is intriguing.