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Would Obama Really Talk To Hamas?

I don’t know if I believe this, but The Guardian is reporting that President-elect Barack Obama might put out feelers for direct U.S. talks with Hamas.

The Guardian has spoken to three ­people with knowledge of the discussions in the Obama camp. There is no talk of Obama approving direct diplomatic negotiations with Hamas early on, but he is being urged by advisers to initiate low-level or clandestine approaches, and there is growing recognition in Washington that the policy of ostracising Hamas is counter-productive. A tested course would be to start ­contacts through Hamas and the US intelligence services, similar to the secret process through which the US engaged with the PLO in the 1970s. Israel did not become aware of the contacts until much later.

A couple things here, first on process and then on substance.

I have no direct knowledge, but seeing the on-the-record quotes in the piece — Steve Clemons, etc — it wouldn’t surprise me if this was a case of reporter Suzanne Goldenberg hearing a few rumors and then calling people who’ve heard the rumors too and then printing them. This happens. We’re all under pressure to break news. Lots of people in Washington hear lots of things. Sometimes transition people hear things from journalists and then the transition people talk with other transition people and then the journalist calls that transition person and all of a sudden what started as a journalist speculation now becomes an inside information. This business can really, really, really blow if you’re not careful. I’m not saying I know for a fact that’s what’s happening in this case. It just wouldn’t surprise me is all.

On the merits. Barack Obama said in the middle of last year that he was open to discussions with unsavory parties because the alternatives are worse — and then he famously excepted Hamas. After that, he cut Rob Malley out of his advisory circle because Malley talked to Hamas. That was, to say the least, inconsistent. What sense does it make to talk to Iran if you’re not willing to talk to Hamas as well? Now, there are practical considerations for declining to cut Hamas out of talks — namely, the apparatus of the Palestinian Authority is still in the hands of Fatah, and Fatah doesn’t want Hamas to be a U.S. interlocutor; neither does Jordan or Egypt. Yesterday at the U.S. Institute of Peace conference, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt Daniel Kurtzer, who might be an Obama envoy to the Middle East, came up with an interesting formulation for how to cut Hamas out of peace negotiations. So all of those are pretty strong indications that Obama isn’t really considering that.

However, one of the reasons you have intelligence services is to initiate contacts with officially-untouchable groups like Hamas. This is something that you won’t hear CIA Director-designate Leon Panetta or Director of National Intelligence-nominee Dennis Blair talk about in their confirmation hearings — to do otherwise would undermine the point — but it’s a fact of life. Does it really benefit the United States to not have any contact with an organization, however loathsome I might find it, that holds power over half of the Palestinian territories? And if the Palestinians end up going more and more into Hamas’s camp, does that mean that millions of Palestinians face diplomatic isolation? That’s an untenable position. Hamas outreach through the CIA is a pretty sensible way for the United States to hedge its bets. (Think it hasn’t already happened? I don’t have any inside information, but to believe otherwise is naive.)

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