If the US Should Talk to Iran, Why Shouldn’t it Talk to Hamas?

Paul Woodward

James Baker threw down the gauntlet to President Bush yesterday when he commended the Iraq Study Group report as "probably the only bipartisan report he's going to get." The White House has an alternative in the works but by the time their back-up review comes out, I doubt that it will garner much close attention. The question now is this: Is the ISG report really as important as it's being billed, or is the massive amount of attention it has received simply a sign that most of Washington is now desperately clutching at straws?

If in the long run this report turns out to have much significance this may have less to do with its specific proposals than -- as was the case earlier this year with the Mearsheimer and Walt essay, 'The Israel Lobby' -- its ability to open up debate and reframe some crucial issues.

The report insists that the "United States cannot achieve its goals in the Middle East unless it deals directly with the Arab-Israeli conflict and regional instability." Although such a view has long been the conventional wisdom in Europe and the Middle East, inside Washington there has until recently been an effective taboo on articulating what might otherwise be regarded as an obvious connection.

The Israeli reaction to this assertion has been to reiterate the state's existential ambiguity: Israel is seemingly in the Middle East but not of the Middle East. Ehud Olmert responded obliquely by saying that "we have a different view," but then went on to reiterate Israel's own vision of a regional linkage: "We always felt, like other nations in our region, that the removal of Saddam Hussein was a major, major contribution to stability of our part of the world." One has to wonder, is this a uniquely Israeli conception of "stability," or a particularly limited definition of "our part of the world"?

While the ISG report might appear to be moving in the right direction by both underlining the importance of addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the pressing need for the United States to directly engage Iran and Syria, there is one glaring contradiction embedded in its proposals -- one that the US media is almost certain to ignore.

At the very same time that it insists that the administration must start talking to Iran, the ISG dutifully echoes the White House by insisting that the only Palestinians who can be engaged with are "those who accept Israel's right to exist." In other words, as far as the ISG is concerned, the U.S. should persist in its policy of refusing to talk to a democratically-elected Hamas-led Palestinian government, yet it must engage with a regime that Secretary Rice likes to call "the central bank of terrorism."

The last time I checked, the Iranian government had not made it clear that it accepts Israel's right to exist, so what are we to conclude? That in the eyes of the wise members of the ISG, Hamas poses a greater threat to Israel than the widely trumpeted threat posed by Iran? Clearly, no such calculus is at play. Iran is in a powerful position, but Hamas is not. Hamas can safely be ignored, but Iran can't.

Even so, as ISG co-chair Lee Hamilton, said yesterday, "You cannot look at this area of the world and pick and choose among the countries that you're going to deal with. ... Everything in the Middle East is connected to everything else."

What Hamilton failed to make clear was that the ISG clearly has no interest in challenging Washington's unwillingness to recognize two key nodes in that network of indivisible connections -- Hamas and Hezbollah. Even if these organizations demonstrate a greater interest in democracy than either the governments of Syria or Iran, and even if these are groups that have a greater capacity to purposefully shape public opinion across the region than does the United States, these are nevertheless two regional players that Washington will continue to refuse to engage. The ISG's "all-inclusive" approach comes with sadly predictable caveats.



One Comment

  1. Wil Robinson wrote:

    Good point…though I doubt the US will talk to either.