Incoming US President Barack Obama, in what would constitute a welcome break with the Bush administration's war on terror and lack of even handedness in the Israeli Palestinian conflict, is willing to establish a line of communication with Hamas, The Guardian reports quoting sources close to Obama's transition team. Like past administrations used US intelligence channels for their contacts with the Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Obama is likely to use the CIA to talk to a group which features as a specially designated terrorist on the US Treasury's list of terrorists. The US Congress in 2006 banned US contacts with and funding of Hamas in the wake of its electoral victory.
The initiation of clandestine contacts with Hamas stems from a belief among Obama advisers that isolating the group is proving counter-productive. The move would constitute a welcome signal that Obama may be willing to take a fresh approach to Middle East peacemaking, the Bush administration's war on terror, and the US reluctance to engage with Islamists rather than Jihadis, who significant chunks of public opinion across the region. It would also at least implicitly call into question the rationale of Israel's refusal to engage at least more moderate elements within Hamas as well as it policy that led to the offensive in Gaza. It would also heighten concern among Israeli leaders that they may no longer enjoy the kind of uncritical US support they did with the outgoing Bush administration. Steve Rosen, a controversial former American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) official and driving force in the Israeli lobby in Washington who was indicted on charges of passing classified information to Israel, says on his blog, Obama Mideast Monitor, that he has been reliably told that Obama would not violate his campaign pledge not to talk to Hamas as long as it fails to recognize Israel and disavow terrorism. Although initially clandestine, US Hamas contacts would contribute to repairing the United States' damaged international reputation, which Obama has vowed to repair.
Confirmation of news reports that Richard Haass, a former National Security Council official and head of the Council of Foreign Relations, will be appointed Obama's special Middle East envoy would likely be seen as confirmation that Obama may be willing to engage Hamas. Haass has advocated low-level contacts with Hamas, provided there is a ceasefire in place and Hamas achieves reconciliation with Fatah, the group that dominates the Palestine Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas. "This is going to be an administration that is committed to negotiating with critical parties on critical issues," The Guardian quoted one of its unidentified sources as saying.
Haass together with Martin J. Indyk, a former Steve Rosen-protégé, US ambassador to Israel and director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution whose has been mentioned as a candidate for a senior Middle East-related position in the Obama administration, argue in an essay entitled Beyond Iraq: A New U.S. Strategy for the Middle East that "the Bush administration's boycotting of Hamas after it freely and fairly won the Palestinian elections enabled the United States' opponents in the Arab and Muslim worlds to raise the banner of double standards," a reference to the US refusal to engage Hamas after it won a landslide in elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006 that were judged free and fair. The essay notes further that "in the war of ideas, Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah, have made some headway with the argument that violent radicalism is the way to liberate Palestine and achieve dignity and justice for Arabs and Muslims."
Although the essay was written prior to the Israeli offensive against Hamas and assumes the existence of the Israel Hamas ceasefire that broke down last November after Israeli forces killed a Palestinian in Gaza, Haass and Indyk note that "given Hamas' control of Gaza and its support among at least one-third of Palestinians, a peace process that excludes it could well fail." They argues that as the governors of Gaza, Hamas' leaders should have to choose between launching rocket, mortar, and terrorist attacks on southern Israeli towns and meeting Palestinians' needs by establishing order and taking the steps necessary to attract aid (including ending the use of tunnels for arms smuggling and returning the Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit). The cease-fire agreement that Egypt negotiated is holding for the moment precisely because the Hamas leadership has effectively policed it, choosing to place the needs of Gazans ahead of Hamas' interest in 'resistance.'"
"The United States should encourage such developments but leave it to Egypt, Israel, and the PA (Palestine Authority) to handle their relationships with Hamas. If the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas continues to hold and a Hamas-PA reconciliation emerges, the Obama administration should deal with the joint Palestinian leadership and authorize low-level contact between U.S. officials and Hamas in Gaza. If the cease-fire breaks down irreparably and the Israeli army reenters Gaza, the United States should then work with others to create and insert an Arab-led international force to restore PA control and bring about Israel's withdrawal. Obviously, it would be highly desirable to avoid such a scenario. One way to do this would be to ensure the kind of progress in the negotiations that would create a dynamic in which Hamas feels pressured by Gazans not to miss the peace train that is beginning to move in the West Bank." Parallel to this, the two former diplomats call for increased US focus on Israeli Syrian peace talks, noting that if successful this would weaken external support for Hamas or at least for its more militant tendencies," the essay goes on to say.
In a separate Memo to the President: Renew Diplomacy in the Middle East, Indyk and former National Security Council Kenneth M. Pollack www.brookings.edu/experts/p/pollackk.aspx last week suggested that the war in Gaza offered Obama an opportunity to jump start his Middle East policy and implied that this could involve a role for Hamas. "Hamas would prefer to avoid losing control of Gaza. By offering a sustainable ceasefire that ends rocket attacks on Israel, leads to Israeli troop withdrawals from Gaza, prevents smuggling of weapons into Gaza and includes international monitoring of the flow of goods and people, you may be able to convince both sides to de-escalate. A ceasefire in Gaza might also create pressures on Hamas to reconcile their differences with Fatah, enabling Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to speak again for all Palestinians," the memo says.
In a New York Review of Books review of separate memoirs of past Middle East peace negotiators, including Indyk and Daniel C. Kurtzer en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Daniel_C._Kurtzer, a former senior State Department official and US ambassador to Egypt and Israel whose name is mentioned as a possible candidate for a Middle East role in the Obama administration, Hussein Agha and Robert Malley say that Indyk "shows sensible pragmatism in suggesting a different approach toward Hamas, arguing that if it abides by its cease-fire with Israel, the US should support efforts at reconciliation among Palestinians. At a US Institute of Peace this week on Israeli Palestinian peace, Kurtzer suggested that once the guns in Gaza fall silent “there will be an unacceptable situation on the ground, no matter how this particular phase” wraps up, because Israel and Hamas are like “that Monty Python sketch with the 100-meter dash with runners for no sense of direction." Kurtzer said it was hard see how the ceasefire would “lead to a conclusion where a mutuality of interest will emerge from it.” Carefully couching his words, Kurtzer said the proposition of negotiating an Israeli Palestinian peace settlement as long as the Palestinian leadership was divided had not yet been fully tested. In speaking about the leadership, Kurtzer did not specify whether he meant the Palestine Authority, Hamas or both. But by suggesting negotiating a peace agreement that would then be submitted to a referendum, Kurtzer appeared to be suggesting that at least initially Hamas should be circumvented. That approach nonetheless would not rule out clandestine US contacts with the Islamist group.
I don’t think we have fully tested the proposition” of negotiating an agreement with the Palestinian leadership — he doesn’t come out and say Fatah, but it’s probably what he means — and then subjecting it to a Palestinian national referendum. Clearly, he’s thought about working around Hamas.
With a UN Security Council resolution calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza finally in place, how Hamas responds in terms of adhering to a ceasefire once it takes effect, including a likely mechanism to prevent it from replenishing its arms stocks, is certain to influence the Obama administration's attitude towards contact with the Islamist group. Israel will view a ceasefire that effectively cuts Hamas off from military supplies – although it may continue to find ways to build its largely ineffective home-made rockets – as evidence of success of its military campaign. Nonetheless, the history of Israel Hamas relations resembles a dance in 1981 that Israel and the PLO engaged in, which ultimately was part of the process that led to direct albeit failed peace talks between the two.
At the time, Israel agreed to a ceasefire mediated by the United Nations and the United States with an enemy it had assiduously sought to delegitimize and place beyond the pale of permissible engagement by others. Like Hamas, the PLO at the time was involved in a torturous and often contradictory effort to formulate a position that would lead to peace negotiations based on a two-state solution. Hamas' current position is a far cry from officially acknowledging Israel but its repeated call for a ten-year ceasefire with Israel is an indication of where Hamas could be heading as are past defeated calls from more moderate forces within Hamas for a halt to the armed struggle. Like the 1981 ceasefire with the PLO that was followed by subsequent military clashes that culminated in Israel's expulsion of the Palestinian guerrilla group from Lebanon in 1982, Israel agreed last year to the ruptured ceasefire with Hamas because of an appreciation of its enhanced military capability modeled on Hizbollah, which Israel failed to defeat in 2006.