"Sacking" of Washington Mid East Hand Points Up Growing Rift Between D.C. Ideology and Israeli Pragmatism

| Sun May 11, 2008 11:13 PM EDT

Former Clinton administration Middle East peace negotiator Rob Malley now heads the Middle East program of the International Crisis Group, an international conflict resolution nongovernmental organization. He has also been one of many informal advisers to Barack Obama's campaign.

Through his work at ICG, Malley has talked with Hamas officials, according to a report in Sunday's Times of London. Which is not so surprising given ICG's conflict resolution mission. But because of that revelation, the paper reports, Malley has been officially "sacked" as an informal adviser to the Obama campaign:

One of Barack Obama's Middle East policy advisers disclosed yesterday that he had held meetings with the militant Palestinian group Hamas – prompting the likely Democratic nominee to sever all links with him.
Robert Malley told The Times that he had been in regular contact with Hamas, which controls Gaza and is listed by the US State Department as a terrorist organisation. Such talks, he stressed, were related to his work for a conflict resolution think-tank and had no connection with his position on Mr Obama's Middle East advisory council.
"I've never hidden the fact that in my job with the International Crisis Group I meet all kinds of people," he added.

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Ben LaBolt, a spokesman for Mr. Obama, responded swiftly: "Rob Malley has, like hundreds of other experts, provided informal advice to the campaign in the past. He has no formal role in the campaign and he will not play any role in the future."

Contacted for comment, Malley stressed the same point. "I am not and in fact never was really an [Obama] adviser," he emailed.

In a previous interview, Malley explained his position on Hamas. "It is not an issue of whether the US should talk to Hamas," Malley told me. "That is not in the cards."

"What I do think is, we need to question a policy that has been in place for two and a half years which by any measure, including the measure the [Bush] administration set up to assess its policy, has been an outright failure," Malley continued. "It has not gotten Hamas to accept preconditions [of recognizing Israel]. It hasn't stopped violence or deterred Hamas from launching violence. It has not weakened Hamas' hold militarily or politically. It hasn't strengthened moderates whose credibility is hemorraghing and who are viewed as being on the side of Israel and the US. It has not advanced the peace process."

"By any standard, and I am even prepared to accept the administration's own measure, this has been a bankrupt policy," Malley concluded. "At a minimum, that warrants an honest discussion on alternatives."

Here in Israel, Malley's position--that the current Israeli-Hamas stand off warrants an honest discussion of alternatives--has been advocated by many former Israeli security and diplomatic veterans from the right and the left. Chief among them is former Israeli intelligence chief Efraim Halevy.

"We have to reckon with Hamas as an element in the equation," Halevy told me recently. "Now whether this has to be done by direct talks with Hamas is a question of methodology, mechanics -- not the principle. The principle is we have to engage them. ...At the moment, neither side wants to speak with the other. But every side wants to engage the other...Hamas is willing to act as an element in the equation."

Halevy's view is by no means universal in Israel. But increasingly it is being expressed by various Israeli political and security figures. "Given that the current policy of containment has not quelled the violence across its border, Israel should opt for another way," Israeli Knesset member Yossi Beilin, chairman of the left-leaning Meretz-Yachad party, recently argued in the Washington Post. "The only option that I see serving the cause of peace is to enter into a dialogue with Hamas through a third party in order to reach a cease-fire." (The Israeli left, more invested in Palestinian moderates due to their years negotiating together, came more recently to the position of the need to engage in some form with Hamas than Israel's right wing realists, as Malley characterized the Halevy camp).

The call for indirect talks with Hamas coming from a growing number of Israeli security veterans is hardly based on sympathy for Hamas' tactics or ideology. "I am not enamored of them," Halevy stressed. "I think they are a bunch of people who are very cruel at times. ... But I am not sure that there's so much difference between the methods Fatah uses and those used by Hamas."

Halevy also points out that it was the Bush administration that pushed both the Israeli government and Palestinian Authority leadership to allow Hamas to run in Palestinian elections which Hamas won. "This [Bush] administration, which says it has a principled approach [of not talking to terrorists], is the very administration that in 2006 twisted the arm of the Israeli government and of the Palestinian authorities and forced them both to accept Hamas as a participant in the elections," Halevy told me. "When the result of the election was a surprise – by the way to Hamas itself – the immediate reaction was, 'Okay, We don't like this result, so we'll change the rules.' They are inconsistent. The administration is inconsistent in its approach."

And not only inconsistent, the former Mossad chief says, but ineffectual: "If this administration believes it is possible to bring about the end of Hamas as a political or military force, then okay. But this is not what is being said today. If you ask in Washington, 'Can Hamas can be destroyed?' No one in Washington says that....I don't hear either from Israeli hawks or American hawks any message that they have a solution in hand."

It's perhaps not surprising that pragmatism has taken hold more quickly in some quarters of Israel than in Washington where the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains highly abstract, ideological and politicized. After all, it is Israelis who are being killed by Hamas shells and rockets every week, and Palestinians who are suffering under an Israeli siege of Gaza and being killed in Israeli military operations against Hamas -- not Americans. But maybe the new strain of pragmatism being promoted within the Israeli security and diplomatic establishment will eventually seep into Washington's discourse in coming months.

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