Obama, Carter and Meshaal: Campaign rhetoric v. policy

Alas, Barack Obama is apparently not reading South Jerusalem. If he were, perhaps his campaign would have responded to Jimmy Carter’s reported plans to meet Hamas leaders in Damascus with something a bit more sophisticated than this statement, carried by JTA (thanks to Ben Smith for the head’s up):

“Senator Obama does not agree with President Carter’s decision to go forward with this meeting because he does not support negotiations with Hamas until they renounce terrorism, recognize Israel’s right to exist and abide by past agreements,” the Obama campaign said. “As president, Obama will negotiate directly with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.”

Yes, I understand the electoral logic. Carter, it seems, is nearly as unpopular among pro-Israel voters as Hamas is. Carter has hinted he supports Obama, and then he goes and does this. Obama wants to open up some distance between himself and Carter.

But from a policy perspective, this is a mistake. As I wrote here yesterday, the current administration’s policy toward Hamas has boomeranged. The US supported Hamas participation in Palestinian elections, expecting a festival of democracy and Hamas’s defeat. When Hamas won, the administration’s tactics helped produce the Hamas takeover of Gaza. Bush’s “pro-Israel” stance toward Hamas has hurt Israel repeatedly. Meanwhile, Khaled Meshaal, the Damascus-based head of Hamas’s Political Bureau, has just reiterated his willingness to accept a two-state solution.

The U.S. needs a new policy toward Hamas. It has good reasons for avoiding official meetings with Hamas leaders – which is all the more reason it needs an unofficial back channel, through which it can check how far the Islamic movement will bend in return for a chance to escape the current dangerous stalemate and get back into a Palestinian unity government. Carter’s visit provides a chance for that.

If Obama becomes president and he pursues a more sensible foreign policy, he’ll look for such a back channel. And when word leaks out –

Damascus (AP) July 4, 2009: Sources here report that US businessman Kwaz E. Modo has met with Hamas officials, apparently as part of Obama Administration feelers to open a dialogue with the group –

he’ll be accused of betraying what he said during the campaign. Mort Klein and Abe Foxman will have the time of their lives. It would have been smarter to be more careful. For instance, Obama could have said that public contacts with Hamas are a mistake. If you plan to win, you should plan to govern.

3 thoughts on “Obama, Carter and Meshaal: Campaign rhetoric v. policy”

  1. I am afraid US politics is not very rational where Israel is concerned. I can’t see what possible alternative any serious US politician has other than to do what Obama is doing. Sadly his room for manoeuvre will not be much better is office (look at Al Gore’s environmental record as a VP).

    I doubt if you can add those qualifications like you are suggesting (‘public’): people will pick them up. Secret negotiations have to be just that and often the rhetoric gets stepped up to cover such contacts: look at the rhetoric on both sides while all those secret contacts were going on between the IRA and the UK government (or Khomeini’s rhetoric during Iran-Contra).

  2. I couldn’t agree more. But I’m hoping that everyone BUT Abe Foxman, Mort Klein & Alan Dershowitz will have shorter memories & forget Obama made such an insipid statement. People in the know tell me that Obama’s Jewish advisors are pretty savvy & basically on “our side” on peace issues. But every time I read a statement like this one I wonder…

    You must’ve seen Haaretz’s wonderful editorial about Carter’s snub at the hands of the Israeli gov’t.

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