A leading British newspaper, quoting unnamed advisers to President-elect Barack Obama, reported late Thursday that the administration is willing to negotiate directly with Hamas, the Islamist group fighting Israel in Gaza that is considered a terrorist organization by the United States.
If true, the story in the Friday edition of the British Guardian newspaper represents a huge gamble by Obama in the early days of his adminstration.
A misstep will not only tarnish U.S. foreign policy, it could cause a serious breach between a new administration and Israel just as the Jewish state confronts a nuclear threat from Iran, one of Hamas’ chief sponsors. Politically, it could wreak huge damage among the Democrat’s Jewish base in the United States.
The paper describes these contacts as back-channel talks that would be initiated by U.S. intelligence officials, presumably the CIA, which has forged contacts in the past with the Palestinian Fatah government in the West Bank.
“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 ostracizing Hamas is counter-productive,” the story says. “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.”
The story quotes Bruce Hoffman, a leading terrorism analyst at Georgetown University, as expressing skepticism that the new administration would take such a risky step with one of the most unpredictable, intransigent guerrilla movements in the world. Hamas has never recognized the right of Israel to exist, and during a so-called truce lasting months they continued to fire rockets at towns and cities in southern Israel. The 13-day-long Israeli incursion came only after Hamas announced their truce period was over.
Hoffman said it was unlikely that Obama would move to initiate contacts with Hamas unless the radical faction in Damascus was crippled by the conflict in Gaza. "This would really be dependent on Hamas's military wing having suffered a real, almost decisive, drubbing."
Israeli officials have not responded to the article, but writing Friday in The Jerusalem Post, Gerald Steinberg, a leading Israeli defense expert, noted that Hamas has not even cooperated with Arab governments.
“In Gaza, for the three years following the Israeli disengagement, Egypt has failed to stop Hamas from acquiring weapons, and numerous summits in Cairo involving top Hamas leaders have had no visible impact,” Steinberg wrote. “Whether this is due to the weakness of the regime or ambivalence regarding the relationship with Israel is unclear, but to be taken seriously, Egypt must clearly demonstrate that it can provide more than rhetoric.”
As for the United States, it’s the only dependable ally and honest broker that Israel has in its corner, Steinberg wrote.
“America remains the indispensable country, and the only potential power that can give credibility to a stable and serious cease-fire agreement,” Steinberg wrote. “But America is overstretched in Iraq and Afghanistan, and involvement in Gaza would be limited to technical advisers on detecting and blowing up the tunnels under the Philadelphi corridor used to smuggle missiles.”
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