Friday, January 9, 2009

Positive Chutzpah for Peace?

The economic crisis may have been the most influential factor in Barack Obama winning the November election; but, if ever there were a need for a "change we can believe in," it is in the current Administration's approach to diplomacy built upon a dual foundation of denial and myopia. Most important may be what I have called our "Sin-of-Omission Diplomacy," through which we have tried to set ourselves up as the sole arbiter of who should and should not participate in discussions over the current situation in Gaza. Well, if we are to believe the sources cited by Suzanne Goldenberg for a story she filed last night on, Barack Obama may have taken his first major step towards such change in our foreign policy; and it may be audacious enough to earn him his first Chutzpah of the Week award with a positive connotation (having already received two on the negative side, one entirely his own and the other shared with his campaigning colleagues). We remember the flack that Obama took for suggesting that holding talks with Iran could be done in an appropriate manner; and, for all of the conciliatory things he said to AIPAC last June, he managed to reinforce that particular position during his speech at their convention.

Right now, however, the question of talking to Iran has been displaced by the question of talking about Gaza. The Bush Administration has been adamant in its refusal to recognize that Hamas has a legitimate voice in any discussion about Gaza. According to Goldenberg's report, however, the Obama Administration seems willing to reject such intransigence:

The incoming Obama administration is prepared to abandon George Bush's doctrine of isolating Hamas by establishing a channel to the Islamist organisation, sources close to the transition team say.

The move to open contacts with Hamas, which could be initiated through the US intelligence services, would represent a definitive break with the Bush presidency's ostracising of the group. The state department has designated Hamas a terrorist organisation, and in 2006 Congress passed a law banning US financial aid to the group.

The Guardian has spoken to three people with knowledge of the discussions in the Obama camp. There is no talk of Obama approving direct diplomatic negotiations with Hamas early on, but he is being urged by advisers to initiate low-level or clandestine approaches, and there is growing recognition in Washington that the policy of ostracising Hamas is counter-productive. A tested course would be to start contacts through Hamas and the US intelligence services, similar to the secret process through which the US engaged with the PLO in the 1970s. Israel did not become aware of the contacts until much later.

I can understand why these sources are confidential. As Obama has no trouble reminding us, he is not yet President; and any move that might undermine Bush Administration activities could well be folly, rather than chutzpah. Nevertheless, this "confidential leak" is one of the most positive signs we have seen of an approach to the Middle East that could be both serious and substantive. Whether it will be sufficient to enable some form of interim cease fire until the Obama Administration is in a position to act remains to be seen, but it was in the hope of seeing this kind of positive chutzpah that I cast my own vote for change!

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