The UK’s Labour leadership between Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Smith contest threw up this interesting exchange. Should involve anyone from so-called Islamic State be involved in Middle East peace negotiations?

Yes? Or no? A classic ‘closed question’ that leaves almost no room for waffling. Or so you might think.

But look carefully at the question. It leaves space for fuzziness. What does ‘involve’ mean here? The question does not talk about involving Islamic State as an organisation. It talks about ‘anyone from Islamic State’. So maybe there could be ISIS people negotiating but wearing different hats?

This time J Corbyn ‘gets it’. Whatever he may think privately, he knows that to say Yes is not a good idea if this time he wants to avoid appearing like a lunatic. So in the heat of the moment he comes up with this cunning brisk formula that makes it sound as if he’s saying No when in fact he’s not:

“No, they’re not going to be around the table, no.”

Ah. So it’s possible they’ll be there, but hovering in the background somehow.

Owen Smith by contrast wants to show that he is a reasonable realistic experienced pragmatist. He therefore mentions his experience in the Northern Ireland peace process and then waffles painfully about the need for any international peace process to be settled by ‘dialogue’.

The presenter neatly sums up:

“So you’re [Corbyn] a No and you’re [Smith] a Yes.”

Smith waffles again:

‘Ultimately all of the actors need to be involved, but at the moment ISIL are clearly not interested in negotiating … at some point to resolve this we need to get people round the table’.

What’s the core mistake being made here?

It’s to think that the negotiation is what happens ’round the table’. As veterans of this site know, it’s not:

In the wonderful negotiation masterclasses presented by the Ambassador Partnership we quote what a wily Afrikaaner once told me: “What the Americans and North Vietnamese were doing in Paris was talks – the American bombing of North Vietnam was the negotiation”. In other words, the deeper process was not about the detail, but about willpower and willingness to take and inflict pain.

So now in the Middle East. When John Kerry sits down with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts they are, basically, having talks. The biggest negotiation is the civilisational Arabic/Iranian powerplay between Obscurantism and Modernity across the Middle East.

And within that convulsive drama the negotiation question “Does Israel exist?” leaves nothing much to say other than Yes. Or No.

The whole point of the Islamic State movement is that it rejects the usual paradigms for looking at ‘negotiating’ and pretty much everything else. International borders and human rights standards as the foundation-stones of global order are precisely what ISIS/ISIL reject. They think (not unreasonably) that we are all schemers, people who set up the rules because they suit us. They think that we can be defeated by chaos. Why? Because chaos is fair:

So, question. What’s there to talk about, around a table or otherwise, with someone who thinks the very act of talking is a waste of time and a tricksy way to stack the deck? Who thinks that a policy of the worse, the better is the only way to go? Who rejects any principles that we understand of costs v benefits?

That said …

ISIS/ISIL exist. They do things that affect us. They control territory from which emanates raw Islamist terror and (much worse) the glamorisation of the idea of Islamist terror. So we (here the World) do negotiate directly with them, by trying to kill them and thereby show that their revolting ideas and ambitions just won’t work. You think you’re strong – but we’re stronger. In this civilisational negotiation we win – you lose. In effect we aim to wipe out ISIS/ISIL as an organised force in return for their offer to wipe us out as a civilisation.

The practical risk of course is that we smash them as a single if disparate visibly organised force in one self-proclaimed caliphatish space, but then their movement and its goals fragment across the globe into ad hoc splinter Islamist fanatical grouplets pursuing random acts of terror on an opportunistic dis-organised basis. That may be the only way to proceed. We just get blown up or stabbed or poisoned now and then.

Such a situation will create more rifts and antagonisms and hostilities between Muslim communities in the West and the non-Muslim population. For us that’s a problem: why can’t we all just … get along?

For ISIS/ISIL that’s the whole point. They want divisions that clear the decks of all namby-pamby liberals and ‘moderates’, so that the true battle between Believers and the rest can unfold as it may.

Within all this is a central international negotiation drama. Better to negotiate with the worst people who have killed and maimed their way to a position of significant influence? That makes sense if you want to stop the mayhem once and for all. It’s the logic of the Owen Smith experience in Northern Ireland. BUT it works only if the people you’re negotiating with have goals that coincide at least in principle with your own basic parameters.

No-one in the UK or elsewhere in the world cared over much if Northern Ireland and Eire merged to form one country, as long as the majority in Northern Ireland accepted that outcome. A ‘united Ireland’ was something that in principle was acceptable, maybe even normal. It was a limited ‘rational’ objective about reshaping Irish identity and nothing else.

But imagine that the IRA had proclaimed a goal of making all of Europe Catholic and Irish, as a basis for then moving outwards towards turning the rest of the planet towards an Irish-Catholic space operating to IRA rules outside any modern values of international law. That objective would be unacceptable and irrational and above all unlimited, for us and for everyone else. What’s to discuss?

Key point: if you do decide to negotiate with the worst and most dangerous elements, you disempower any moderates on the other side. You show that a policy of the worse, the better is indeed the best way to catch attention and get results.

Thus back to Corbyn and his Hamas-loving ways and his many anti-semitic friends.

The Israel v Arab problem is, as noted above, all about a single stark question: Does Israel exist, or not? Slowly but surely the feeling is sneaking into UN and Western and wider intellectual and political circles that Not is the only proper answer to that question. Jeremy Corbyn himself boldly leads the way, ducking and weaving to avoid straight answers.

The negotiation here is not about borders or land. It’s about existence and identity. Is there any possible deal whereby Israel does exist in a Jewish-led state that Arab opinion will accept? Not obviously. Here the ‘moderate’ position is merely that Israel exists for the time being until such time as it can be destroyed once and for all: the final solution to end all final solutions.

Those Arabs and their leaders who might not care about Israel existing or who might even like a principled deal in that direction get out-muscled by intense Muslim cum Arab nationalist extremists and their Corbynista Western sycophants who implacably oppose any accommodation with Israel other than a meaningless dishonest tactical compromise for a decade or two.

Jeremy Corbyn knows this. Hence his sly reply in that debate: the very worst Islamist killers and extremists can’t be at the table, but they of course will be part of the real negotiation behind and under the table and out there on the streets, using knives, stones and explosives and anything else they can find to get their way to cut the West down to size and wipe Israel from the map.

Owen Smith? Out of his depth.