Obama Administration Withdraws Proposed Concessions to Hamas
This has become a very interesting situation. On May 1, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in congressional testimony, reinterpreted the proposal discussed below to make it clear that the United States did not embrace the proposal (earlier raised by the French) to back a PA coalition with Hamas. She said that every individual minister of such a government would have to accept the quartet provisions that included recognizing Israel and abandoning terrorism. This would effetively rule out U.S. aid to a Fatah-Hamas coalition (which isn't going to happen any way).
This tells us that the Obama administration is continuing to put a priority on maintaining strong U.S.-Israel relations--despite many predictions to the contrary and misinterpretations of what it has said or done. One can either view the previous initiative on Hamas as a trial balloon that got shot down or as a mistake whose correction shows the underlying main line of administration policy.
The original proposal might eventually have become its first step directly damaging U.S.-Israel relations and injuring Israel's interests, the Obama administration has reportedly proposed allowing American aid to go to a Palestinian Authority (PA) even if Hamas, which is designated in U.S. law as a terrorist group, would be participating in it.
If the administration had gone forward with it, the proposal would have reflected badly on the administration's judgment and understanding of the Middle East? Not for the reasons you probably think.
First, it is unnecessary. There is no immediate need or strategic gain to be made by such a step (quite the contrary, as we shall see in a moment). Hamas isn't in coalition with the PA nor does it have any prospect of joining. The negotiations are going badly and anyone with half a brain should be able to see that Fatah, which runs the PA, won't accept Hamas's domination and vice-versa.
What do you call someone in Washington DC who sacrifices political capital for nothing? Answer: extremely stupid.
As the great French foreign minister Charles de Talleyrand once put it, in international affairs blunders are worse than crimes. Talleyrand was not a very nice man. He never apologized for anything. He was a very successful diplomatist.
Second, though, the proposal is dangerous. It signals Hamas that the United States is ready to give it a concession without that group changing anything. Go on, the administration appears to be saying, being terrorist, genocidal in intention, antisemitic, and incredibly repressive of your own people. Why should that stop us giving you money and recognition in future?
And it signals Fatah and the PA that the United States wants them to make a coalition with Hamas. That's the way people think in the Middle East and U.S. officials are supposed to understand this. You can bet your real assets that at this very moment in Ramallah, Hebron, and Nablus people are saying: Obama is now backing Hamas!
As such, it gives aid and comfort to those in Fatah who think that the two Palestinian groups should join to fight Israel. And it gives encouragement to almost all of Fatah which would rather have peace with Hamas than peace with Israel.
Obama says he wants to move the peace process forward. The proposed policy change would have instead punctured one of its tires.
Note however that in a few weeks the administration may face a real situation like this. If the Lebanese election results in Hizballah participating or even dominating the government, the United States is signaling that it will continue aid there also, thus undermining the moderates in the voting.
What would a smart policy do? Insist that the United States will never ever give money to any PA government in which Hamas participated unless Hamas changed its goals and methods, that is recognize Israel's existence and cease terrorism. In other words, the same policy the United States has had up to now.
Why? Because that presses Hamas to change (even if it won't change, that should be Hamas's problem and loss), encourges the PA to stand tough, shows the PA and others that the United States rewards moderation and punished radicalism and terrorism. This encourages others to be more moderate and not to give in to extremists, while encouraging other extremists to think about changing their ways.
Of course, if a coalition was formed in spite of your efforts you can rethink your policy. You shouldn't give in but at least you have the option of taking new facts into account.
That's how policymakers are supposed to work.
Memo to administration policymakers: Leverage is an important principle in international affairs. You have something. Others want it. Make them pay for it. Don't give it away free.
Memo 2 to administration policymakers: Every time you make a concession to your enemies, it hurts your friends who have the same enemies. They start thinking you are supporting their enemies. They become demoralized. They seek to cut their own deals.
If the administration had pushed forward with this change that might be called the Let's Give Money to Hamas Terrorists Act of 2009, it would have been one more piece of evidence as to its very serious misunderstanding of how diplomacy works and the current state of the Middle East.
By withdrawing it, the administration shows that on matters regarding Israel directly and the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it is still saying on a pragmatic course though this does not define other aspects of its regional policy.
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley). To read and subscribe to MERIA, GLORIA articles, or to order books, go to http://www.gloria-center.org. His blog, Rubin Reports is at http://rubinreports.blogspot.com