Harmful hints of a hand to Hamas
By BENNY AVNI
Last Updated: 5:01 AM, April 7, 2010
Posted: 1:38 AM, April 7, 2010
A seasoned former US ambassador to Israel, Thomas Pickering, and a key member of Bill Clinton’s team at the 2000 Camp David talks, Robert Malley, sat down in Zurich last summer with top Hamas politburo members, Osama Hamdan and Mahmud Zahar.
A classmate of Obama’s at Harvard, Malley has long argued that Middle East diplomacy should include Hamas and Syria. He was an Obama adviser on Arab-Israeli issues in 2008 — until the campaign had to sever ties in the wake of media attention to his regular meetings with Hamas leaders.
Plus, as the Wall Street Journal reported Friday, State Department official Rachel Schneller was on an Al Jazeera debate panel with Hamdan in Qatar last month — and shared coffee and a private chat with him later.
Schneller is on sabbatical, so State enjoys some deniability about her official role. But even weeks after the fact, State officials can’t say if top brass had sanctioned her participation in the Al Jazeera panel.
With the administration still slapping Israel and reaching out to Syria, all this raises fears that Obama might have one of his most drastic foreign-policy reversals yet in the offing. At the least, suspicion is strong that the president has blessed these contacts with a wink and a nod: Meet these folks, see what you can get, then we’ll talk.
America’s long-stated policy is it won’t talk until Hamas fulfills three conditions: recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence and abide by all agreements previously signed by Palestinians and Israelis.
Yet Hamas can’t meet those conditions without rejecting its defining goal, which is to assure that no part of Palestine is controlled by infidels — Jewish, Christian or atheist. The best it can promise — but not necessarily deliver — is a limited cease-fire.
State officials tell me that Pickering and Malley are “private citizens,” and that the policy is unchanged. And another Clinton-era Mideast negotiator, Aaron David Miller, insists there’s no reason to fear: “What good could possibly come from an officially-sanctioned meeting with Hamas? Nothing, just a headache,” Miller told me.
But in the region, very few people buy the administration’s line. Hamas officials say Obama is different from all his predecessors. As its deputy “foreign minister,” Ahmed Yussuf, told the Journal, “We believe Hamas’ message is reaching its destination” — the White House.
And Egypt’s main government mouthpiece, Al Ahram, last summer ran a story saying the Zurich meeting had been “coordinated with and promoted by” the State Department. (The Egyptian government considers Hamas a threat, since it’s an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood — which only recently renounced, semi-convincingly, plans for a violent takeover in Egypt.)
And Israelis view this in the context of their own troubles with Obama. “In a period when engagement with one’s enemy is the buzz word in Washington, one can’t rule out that Obama is testing the waters with Hamas,” a former Israeli UN ambassador, Dore Gold, told me.
Then there’s Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — who relies on America and Israel for protection from Hamas. Any sign that Washington is courting his enemies reduces his already-failing street-cred.
Obama has tirelessly promoted “engagement” with the North Korean “rogue regime,” as well as the terror-sponsoring states of Iran and Syria; it doesn’t seem a stretch to think he will reach out to Hamas, too. Until the president himself convincingly condemns these efforts, much of the Middle East will suspect he’s about to fall into that trap