According to a new report from the Guardian, sources confirm that the incoming Obama administration plans to 'open a channel of communication' with Hamas, thereby rejecting the Bush policy of shunning key Middle East political groups on the premise that the the United States 'does not talk to terrorists.' Needless to say, this report from a very reputable news source comes at a time of unprecedented crisis in U.S. foreign policy -- a crisis brought on by the total lack of diplomatic engagement with the Middle East crisis by the outgoing administration.
Given the significance and timing of this news, it is worth pausing for a moment to consider what is meant and what is not meant by 'talk to Hamas' in this situation.
Open Talk of Future Secret "Talk"
The Guardian reports the following:
The incoming Obama administration is prepared to abandon President Bush's doctrine of isolating Hamas by establishing a channel to the Islamist organisation, sources close to the transition team say.
The move to open contacts with Hamas - which could be initiated through the US intelligence services - would represent a definitive break with the Bush presidency's ostracising of the group.
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 in his administration,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. (link)
Notice the strange contradictions in this description--productive contradictions. First, the revelation is that the Obama camp plans to initiate 'clandestine' talks with Hamas. In other words, the leak is bringing to light diplomatic activity that will be secret in the future. But if we know about it now...it is not really secret. This brings us to a second point: that the 'talk' between the Obama administration will probably not see the light of day until Hamas agrees first to certain principles. This leads us to the third, point: the Obama administration feels it needs to negotiate with Hamas one-on-one, prior to stepping into a role as mediator for talks between Hamas and Israel.
Let me just sum that up: (1) secret talks in the future that are already not-secret, that will likely lead to (2) negotiations with Hamas about accepting key principles, which will in turn likely lead to (3) the Obama administration stepping into the light as a mediator between Hamas and Israel.
"Talk" Means Hamas Recognized As Legit Political Party
Another quote from the Guardian article refers to a growing sense on Capital Hill:
Even with such caveats, there is growing agreement, among Republicans as well as Democrats, on the need to engage Hamas to achieve a sustainable peace in the Middle East - even among Obama's close advisers.
Now, to put this in a broader narrative context, what seems to be happening in Congress is that the 'War on Terror' approach to Hamas has failed, the Obama transition team accepts that, and they are pushing for an approach whereby the U.S. attempts to normalize relations with groups hitherto defined as 'terrorists.' Both Republicans and Democrats seem to have accepted this frame shift, according to the Guardian.
In other words, when the Bush era Congress talked about the big concept of 'lasting peace' in the Middle East, it began by pushing certain groups into the category 'terrorist' such that military strikes could be pushed as the solution to them. 'Defeating the terrorists' was the general formula for Bush-era 'long term peace' in the Middle East. If what the Guardian reports is true--that formula has changed, and everybody on the Hill, as well as abroad, knows it. That also means that Hamas and Israel know it, too.
Setting Up The Term 'Talk' As A Pressure Point
At this point, it is worth looking ahead a bit to imagine what the Israel/Palestine debate may look like a month from now.
Very likely, the Guardian article signals that the term 'talk' will emerge as a pressure point for both sides. The Israeli government will be pressured to stand down for good on military strikes, border closings, grid shut downs, and other means of tightening the screws on Palestinian populations. At the same time, the emphasis on 'talk' as a way forward will likely be used to very strongly pressure Hamas to abandon its use of succeeding "generations" of missiles to address their own political concerns in the region.
Likewise, the emphasis on 'talk' will carry forward a new framework of international 'engagement' with Palestinian needs. This will likely mean that the Obama administration will push for a broader discussion about international aid to Gaza for infrastructure, healthcare, education, and so forth.
And so, the framework for discussion on the Middle East that we can expect by mid-2009, starting with the emphasis on 'talk' to Hamas, will be economic--which makes sense given the current state of affairs. But rather than the economic emphasis we saw from the Bush administration in Iraq (e.g., destroy...in order to build a free market society), the Obama administration will likely emphasis the building of networks and partnerships on a global scale to Gaza and the territories--the global flow of support flowing to Gaza as a result of diplomatic channels being opening.
For Israel, it is likely that this emphasis will--for better or for worse--bring a re-dedication from the Obama administration to the current levels of support from the United States. In the short run, it is very unlikely that normalized relations with Hamas--whether in 3, 6, or 18 months--will bring with it some kind of broad re-conceptualization of the aid package to Israel. As a result, the Obama administration's shift of the framework through which the U.S. government approaches the Middle East will carry forward one of the fundamental grievances vis-a-vis U.S.-Israel relations.
Conclusion: Shift to 'Talk' Will Be A Significant Moral Change To U.S. Foreign Policy
By way of conclusion, it is worth going over one point: The Obama administration's emphasis on 'talk' with Hamas will bring a significant moral shift in U.S. policy--but it will not do away with some of the core grievances vis-a-vis U.S. Israel relations.
Let me repeat that: A positive change in the general moral basis of the U.S. government will, nonetheless, carry forward some major issues that divide this country on Middle East policy.
At some point, therefore, the Obama administration will need to step up beyond the change created by the shift in foreign policy and offer a larger view on how Americans should see ourselves in relation to key problems abroad. In a sense, that is the debate triggered by the current crisis in Gaza--a debate not only about what is and is not the use of violence in the name of national defense, but about who we are as a Americans in the face of such violence. That debate is one that the Obama administration has not yet stepped up to shape, but time will tell.
(cross posted from Frameshop)
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