Former top officials urge Obama to contact Hamas

Former U.S. National Security Advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and former World Bank President James Wolfensohn, are among the ten authors of a newly-revealed letter handed to Barack Obama just before his inauguration, urging the new president-elect to change policy and make contact with Hamas.

This was revealed today in a story published by the Boston Globe, which reported that “Nine former senior US officials and one current adviser are urging the Obama administration to talk with leaders of Hamas to determine whether the militant group can be persuaded to disarm and join a peaceful Palestinian government, a major departure from current US policy…

The Boston Globe article continues: “The bipartisan group, which includes economic recovery adviser Paul A. Volcker and former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, made the recommendation in a letter handed to Obama days before he took office, according to Scowcroft. The group is preparing to meet this weekend to decide when to release a report outlining a proposed US agenda for talks aimed at bringing all Palestinian factions into the Mid-east peace process, according to Henry Siegman, the president of the US/Middle East Project, who brought the former officials together and said the White House promised the group an opportunity to make its case in person to Obama … ‘I see no reason not to talk to Hamas’, said Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush. Siegman said the letter, which was handed to Obama by Volcker but has not been made public, said the administration should ‘at least explore the possibility’ that Hamas, which took control of the Palestinian territory of Gaza after elections in 2006, might be willing to transition into a purely political party and join with its rival, Fatah, which holds the Palestinian presidency in the West Bank”.

Well, while this is pretty cool, if not very cool, it should be noted that Hamas did change its own policy when it became the Change and Reform political party, sponsoring a list of candidates — not all of them Hamas, and not all of them even Muslim — that ran for seats in the January 2006 elections for the Palestine Legislative Council (PLC). This was a major change of policy for Hamas, which wanted no part of the Oslo Accords that had been signed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) — and both the Palestinian Authority(PA) and the PLC were created by the Oslo Accords.

The rest, as they say, is history: the Hamas-backed candidates won a majority of seats in the Legislative Council.

The whole world was surprised (apparently even Hamas). Fatah was furious — and its anger is still evident in much of the policy of what is the Ramallah-based PA today. Then U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, riding an exercise bicycle or something in the gym at the time, saw the news flash on the television screen, and thought it was a mistake. Then, when the news was confirmed, she said later, she thought “Oh my goodness, Hamas won!” Israel was, well, not pleased, and urged the U.S. not to deal with any PA government which included Hamas ministers. The U.S. complied, and even got the entire Quartet (U.S., EU, Russian Federation, and UN) to refuse to do business with Hamas unless and until it renounced violence, recognized Israel, and accepted all previously-signed agreements (meaning, the Oslo Accords).

The Hamas electoral victory took place just months after Israel’s unilateral 2005 “disengagement” from Gaza — which was not coordinated with the Palestinian Authority, it was just imposed, according to Palestinian officials.

But the Israeli “disengagement” did not make the situation inside Gaza any better — despite the best efforts of the then-UN Special Envoy James Wolfensohn, who left his job as head of the World Bank to try to make improvements in the Palestinian condition (and who is now another of the ten persons who signed the letter to Obama urging contact with Hamas).

Most international law experts maintain that this “disengagement” did not end the Israeli occupation, despite strenuous Israeli protestations to the contrary.

Israel, meanwhile, also carried out a campaign of arrests of the Hamas members of the Legislative Council, so many of them that it was impossible to convene a quorum, and the PLC was unable to meet.

Sanctions were applied by the Quartet against both the West Bank and Gaza.

West Bank officials became involved in a U.S. inspired campaign to strengthen Fatah security forces vis-a-vis Hamas, clashes between Fatah and Hamas became regular, and U.S.-supplied weapons were shipped to Fatah forces in Gaza. Then, in mid-June 2007 Hamas moved to rout the Fatah security forces there.

Fatah and the PA in Ramallah furiously called this a “military coup”. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas responded — in what was effectively a “political coup” — by dissolving the three-month-old National Unity government headed by Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, and appointing “independent” Salam Fayyad as Prime Minister to head an Emergency Government which has been extended by Presidential decree ever since.

With Hamas out, Israel and the Quartet then warmly embraced the Ramallah-based PA, lifting sanctions against the West Bank, but turning the screw tighter and tighter against Gaza. The resistance in Gaza resisted, and on 27 December the Israeli leadership unleashed an unprecedented three-week military attack on Gaza, which has left the population there — and in the region — traumatized.

Egypt is presently hosting talks among the Palestinian factions that may, if successful, lead to the formation of a new Palestinian unity government that would most probably include Hamas. U.S. officials have recently indicated, again, that Hamas would have to fulfill the Quartet’s pre-conditions, for things to move forward. Israel, meanwhile, is engaged in what are at least indirect negotiations with Hamas that are being conducted under Egyptian auspices…

So, now what?

The Boston Globe story reported that “Siegman and Scowcroft said the letter urged Obama to formulate a clear American position on how the peace talks should proceed and what the specific goals should be. ‘The main gist is that you need to push hard on the Palestinian peace process’, Scowcroft said in an interview. ‘Don’t move it to end of your agenda and say you have too much to do. And the US needs to have a position, not just hold their coats while they sit down’. Along with Scowcroft, Volcker, and Brzezinski, who was national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, signatories included former House International Relations Committee chairman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat; former United Nations ambassador Thomas Pickering from the first Bush administration; former World Bank president James Wolfensohn; former US trade representative in the Ford administration Carla Hills; Theodore Sorensen, former special counsel to President John F. Kennedy; and former Republican senators Chuck Hagel and Nancy Kassebaum Baker. Meanwhile, other leading foreign policy officials in the United States and in Europe have been calling for deeper international engagement with Hamas … The recommendations in the letter will be laid out in more detail in the coming days, Siegman said, adding that the letter itself will not be released until the signatories have a chance to meet with the president”.

This Boston Globe article can be read in full here.

George Mitchell is probably not upset.

And Brent Scowcroft is totally cool.

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