The Guardian is reporting that the incoming Obama administration is “prepared to talk to Hamas.” According to unnamed sources, these contacts will likely be low-level: Obama might use secret envoys, or engage Hamas multilaterally through “six-party talks.” In addition, much like U.S.-P.L.O. contacts during the 1970s, these contacts will probably be secretive.
First, if true, this news is hardly surprising. After all, Obama ran on a foreign policy platform of talking to every rogue leader under the sun, and specifically Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chavez. For this reason, his campaign promise to boycott Hamas always seemed absurdly inconsistent. Moreover, from the earliest days of his presidential run, Obama surrounded himself with advisers known for their Hamas soft spots, including Robert Malley and Zbigniew Brzezinski. In short, if Obama’s late rollout of Dennis Ross and Daniel Kurtzer as campaign advisers – both of whom oppose engaging Hamas – won your vote, then it probably says “gullible” on your ceiling (look up!).
Second, this is something that Israel clearly saw coming. The timing of Israel’s current war against Hamas says it all: Israel expected a major shift in U.S. policy under Obama, and finally recognized that its bankrupt strategy of sealing Gaza was wasting valuable time for hitting Hamas directly. Indeed, if there is any reason to believe The Guardian‘s report, this is it.
Third, there’s the small possibility that U.S.-Hamas communication will have few strategic consequences. The key variable is how these talks are conducted. If the incoming administration deals with Hamas secretly, the U.S. might gain leverage vis-à-vis Hamas without granting it diplomatic legitimacy. On the other hand, if the U.S. deals with Hamas publicly – even if indirectly, as through multilateral talks – then Hamas will declare victory, and the Middle East’s Islamist current will be strengthened to the detriment of our long-time (albeit authoritarian) allies in the region. In turn, any contacts between the incoming administration and Hamas must occur below the radar.
Make no mistake – I am extremely wary of the U.S. dealing with Hamas. For starters, it would set a terrible precedent: whereas we have previously demanded that Palestinian groups accept a two-state solution and reject terrorism as preconditions for engagement, we would now approach Hamas solely because it has demonstrated staying power. Moreover, U.S. engagement with Hamas would mark a deathblow to pro-democratic Arab forces, which would have little reason to persevere against their Islamist and secular authoritarian foes once the details of U.S.-Hamas meetings emerge. Finally, it’s not remotely clear what the Obama administration hopes to gain from these talks: Obama formerly promised to reinvigorate the peace process, yet Hamas remains diametrically opposed to Israel’s existence and cannot logically hold any other position.
Still, the incoming administration might believe that it has no other choice. After all, our longtime relationship with Fatah has been a dismal failure: Fatah is corrupt, weak, unreliable, and no less inclined towards terrorism than Hamas when the conditions are ripe for it. Meanwhile, Hamas has emerged as the most popular and powerful Palestinian party – even despite the deprivation of its constituents, assassination of its leaders, and massive Israeli retaliation against its suicide bombers and rocket attacks. And, most depressingly, Israeli-Palestinian peace has become so improbable that the time has probably come to construct U.S. Middle Eastern policy around some other objective, such as a long-term stalemate. If this is how the Obama team sees the Middle East, then dealing with Hamas might make sense – that is, so long as it’s done quietly, gradually, and with realistic goals in mind.