Friday, 9 January 2009

Obama diplomatic track with Hamas has a long way to go

The Guardian's front page story - headlined Obama camp 'prepared to talk to Hamas' - certainly heralds a significant shift in US foreign policy, but the report itself makes clear this is rather less dramatic than it at first sounds.

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.

That this would be the likely direction of travel will not surprise foreign policy analysts. However, the move is much less a reaction to current events in Gaza than something which is likely to be complicated (and delayed) by them.

And I imagine there will be a great deal of sensitivity about the discussion going public at this point.

This is essentially a report that the incoming administration broadly agrees with the emerging consensus about both what a Democrat administration should and will try to do among the most senior Democrat and centrist (including some non-neocon Republicans) foreign policy experts in the main Washington think-tanks, and which acknowledges that, apart from the uncertain impact of the current crisis, there will be a long way to go to work out the conditions and nature of such contacts - one option being a European-US division of labour, as with diplomacy on Iran.

The 'smoking gun' for a peace push is not top secret. The Guardian report notes that Richard Haass, reported as likely to be the Middle East envoy and current president of the Council on Foreign Relations, has publicly made the argument in a co-authored piece for Foreign Affairs, published online on Wednesday, on a new US Middle East strategy for the Obama administration (though note again the conditions around what is needed for engagement with Hamas, in a journal article which clearly went to print before the current crisis).

The United States should encourage such developments but leave it to Egypt, Israel, and the PA to handle their relationships with Hamas. If the cease-fire between Israel and Hamas continues to hold and a Hamas-PA reconciliation emerges, the Obama administration should deal with the joint Palestinian leadership and authorize low-level contact between U.S. officials and Hamas in Gaza.

If the cease-fire breaks down irreparably and the Israeli army reenters Gaza, the United States should then work with others to create and insert an Arab-led international force to restore PA control and bring about Israel's withdrawal. Obviously, it would be highly desirable to avoid such a scenario. One way to do this would be to ensure the kind of progress in the negotiations that would create a dynamic in which Hamas feels pressured by Gazans not to miss the peace train that is beginning to move in the West Bank.

Beyond the merits of the foreign policy issues, the report highlights two interesting issues about reporting on the next administration.

1. The Obama campaign was the most leak proof Presidential campaign in recent memory. The transition has tried to be equally tight-lipped, particularly on foreign policy, and with a good deal of success. But that is going to be much more difficult, probably impossible, after January 20th.

2. The story also highlights a difference in British and US media cultures. The Guardian story sets out what it is and is not claiming and the nature of its (triple but anonymous and somewhat vague) sourcing, but I doubt the New York Times or Washington Post would run a news report on this basis, while all of the UK broadsheets would do so.

So The Guardian can now claim to have had the two biggest foreign policy scoops of the transition period, having reported that Hilary Clinton would be offered, and would accept, the job of Secretary of State back on November 17th - a report greeted with much scepticism and sniffiness by American outlets at the time.

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