Shortly before assuming office, President Barack Obama was handed a missive signed by such Washington luminaries as ex-national security advisers Zbigniew Brezezinski and Brent Scowcroft, urging him to “explore the possibility” of direct contact with Hamas. One month after he entered the White House, Obama received an epistle from Ahmad Yousef, a Gaza-based spokesman for the Islamist movement, making the same recommendation. “There can be no peace without Hamas,” Yousef told the New York Times  when asked about the letter’s contents. “We congratulated Mr. Obama on his presidency and reminded him that he should live up to his promise to bring real change to the region.”

There is no word, as yet, on how the foreign policy doyens’ message was received, but Yousef’s occasioned a huffy US rebuke of the UN Relief Works Agency, whose top official in Gaza, Karen Abu Zayd, passed the letter to Sen. John Kerry while he was visiting the devastated territory in mid-February. Even a single sealed envelope, it seems, creates the appearance that the Obama administration is breaking with the US vow, enunciated first under President George W. Bush, not to speak with Hamas until it agrees to renounce violence, abide by previous Palestinian agreements with Israel and recognize Israel as a Jewish state. Kerry hastily explained that he had transferred the letter unknowingly.

The Kerry episode is noteworthy because the Massachusetts senator is seen in Washington as a stalking horse for the Obama administration, a sort of shadow secretary of state who will go, physically and verbally, where Hillary Clinton will not. Though Hamas later claimed Yousef wrote his letter on his own, he interpreted Kerry’s trip to Gaza in precisely this way. Perhaps this is why Hamas politburo chief Khalid Meshaal told the Italian daily La Repubblica on March 23, “Regarding an official opening toward Hamas, it’s a matter of time.”

Indeed, Kerry made conciliatory noises toward Hamas on his Middle East trip, plugging Syrian President Bashar al-Asad as a possible broker of a Palestinian national unity deal including the Islamist party. Upon returning to Washington, furthermore, the senator sent a shot across the bow of Israel’s designated premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, in a speech at the Brookings Institution. “The settlements are an obstacle to peace,” said Kerry, in words that rarely escaped the Bush administration’s lips. And the words that followed never did: “But in our honest moments we would all acknowledge that this [US] policy [against the settlements] has usually existed on paper alone.”

Taken in full, however, Kerry’s remarks at Brookings demonstrated yet again how achingly slowly the foreign policy wheels grind in Washington. His primary stated reason for optimism about the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace, for example, was that “the rise of Iran has created an unprecedented willingness among moderate Arab nations to work with Israel.” If Kerry is speaking for Obama, therefore, the new president believes, like his predecessor, that the road to Jerusalem goes through regional cold war with Tehran. The senator spoke of “direct engagement with Iran” on bilateral issues, but interwove his comments with tips for isolating Iran in the region. He even reprised the Bush administration’s occasional ham-handed sectarian analysis of the Middle East with his musing that “as a secular Arab country with a Sunni-majority population, Syria’s long-term interests lie not with Iran but with its Sunni neighbors and with the West.” And Kerry’s expressions of faith in the 2002 Arab peace initiative were coupled with scolding that will not sit well with Arab interlocutors. “Qatar can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday,” he jibed. (Can the United States continue to be a Qatari ally on Monday that sends money to Israel every day of the week?)

The most worrisome aspect of Kerry’s approach, particularly if, as rumored, it reflects the thinking of the real secretary of state and her advisers, is that Israeli-Palestinian peace will be reduced to one moving part in another of Washington’s great games. Meanwhile, in concrete, barbed wire, adobe and red tile, the biggest obstacles to peace will continue to rise in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

Perhaps President Obama will heed the repeated advice of his correspondents, American and Palestinian, call a halt to Israel’s colonization and then find a way to engage Hamas. The movement’s sense of self-importance aside, there is indeed no peace in Israel-Palestine without them, because no Israeli leader can sell a deal to the Israeli public that was concluded with only some of the Palestinians, and because Hamas would have every incentive to destroy, including with violence against Israeli civilians, a deal that excluded them. Eventually Obama may appreciate these realities deeply enough to drop Washington’s insistence that Hamas give up its negotiating cards before the negotiations begin. But history, and the centrist caution shown by the nascent administration on nearly every front to date, counsel that such a change, if it comes, will come too late, and certainly too late to save the two-state solution that the US professes to cherish.

How to cite this article:

Chris Toensing "Letters, He Gets Letters," Middle East Report Online, March 26, 2009.

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