New York Times op-ed guru Tom Friedman can be frustratingly out of touch in his Middle East writing, but he does also have a refreshing ability to change tack - he has just done that, belatedly, on the question of how to 'deal' with Hamas. In his Sunday column, Friedman pens an imaginary note (subscription required) from newly appointed US war czar, Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute to the President.
The note begins:
Mr. President, if you look around the region, all those we’ve tried to isolate — Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Iraqi insurgents and the Taliban — are stronger today than they were two years ago. We have to reassess our strategy, beginning by facing up to the fact that we’ve fundamentally altered the geopolitical landscape in the Middle East.
Most of the piece is then devoted to the need for, and terms of engagement with Iran - but right at the end of his op-ed, Friedman picks up on the Hamas theme.
At the same time, we have to open a dialogue with Hamas — not to embrace it, but to lay out a gradual pathway that will bring it into relations with Israel.
If I thought that isolating Iran and Hamas was working, I’d continue it. But it manifestly is not — any more than isolating Castro has worked. So either we find a way to draw them in or we’ll be fighting them — and the hard boys — in Iraq, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan for a long, long time.
We have been arguing this for some time - and it's nice to read Friedman echo what is little more than the obvious.
More and more voices in Europe and Israel are coming to the same realization - though painfully few here in the US.
I took a couple of UK Defense Academy senior research associates - William Sieghart and Oliver McTernan - around Washington last week. They have formed a not-for-profit - Forward Thinking - that is engaged in dialogue with the Hamas leadership, as well as right wingers in Israel and the Muslim community in the UK. Forward Thinking draws on the Northern Irish experience and the need to bring so-called hardliners into a peace process. Their message - that Gaza is full of hungry, angry and armed young men - fertile recruitment ground for Al-Qaeda, and that Hamas is a political, conservative, grievance-based organization with whom one can reason, and that may be the best bullwark against Al-Qaeda - was taken very seriously in DC.
This is how Middle East Affairs Editor Zvi Barel put it in his weekend Ha'aretz column:
Hamas is not a pleasant movement. It includes elements of terror and draws its sources from a fanatical religious ideology. But Hamas and the Palestinian unity government, as long as the latter still holds up, are the best address Israel has at the moment. This government is not just the only one that has the potential to control the "State of Gaza," it is the only one that is still interested in the fate of its public and, therefore, is influenced by the pressure of that public. It is the only one that is also threatened by the firing of Qassams on Sderot. But without the means to provide benefits for its citizens, it is also paralyzed.
"The essential thing," according to Barel, is "... letting the Palestinian government work." Barel points to Iraq for "the proper analogy":
... the government in Iraq, as well as the American administration, is ready to talk with everyone... in order to achieve quiet. No reasonable person in the American administration would reject a year-long ceasefire - not to speak of a 20-year ceasefire...