June 26, 2009

Mish'al and Obama - talking past each other?

Click for Al-Jazeerah video - in Arabic(Caption: Khalid Mish'al - head of the Hamas movement political office)
Click on image for Al-Jazeerah video (Arabic)

Khalid Mish'al, the head of the Hamas movement political office, welcomed what he called "new language" from President Obama about the Palestinian situation in general and Hamas in particular.

Speaking in Damascus, where he is based, Mish'al cited Obama's remarks as "the first step on the correct path towards direct dialogue with no conditions," and that the "hand of Hamas is extended to the Obama administration." He further said that he welcomed the positive changes in the position of the American government.

Mish'al was referring to Obama's Cairo address to the Muslim world in which he suggested that Hamas had a role to play in a future Palestinian state. Obama also laid down some conditions that Mish'al seems to overlook in his remarks. Obama insists that Hamas must end violence (some label it terrorism), recognize past agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, and most importantly, recognize Israel's right to exist.

Regardless of Mish'al's words, Hamas and the United States are not that close to direct talks. In the past, Hamas has repeatedly refused to accept the same conditions laid out by the President. Despite his desire for dialogue without conditions, Mish'al stated that any talks would be predicated on the sovereignty of Palestinian land and withdrawal of Israeli forces. That sounds like conditions to me.

Mish'al is a smart, seasoned politician. As such, the rhetoric does not match the reality. I suspect that his remarks are part of a strategy to coax the American administration away from the President's conditions. Mish'al appears to have assessed that President Obama's willingness to engage the regimes in Iran and Syria - Hamas's main sponsors - might transfer into a willingness to engage Hamas as well. Now that post-election violence in Iran has dampened Obama's efforts to engage Tehran, Mish'al might believe that Obama is looking for another forum for advancing his agenda in the region.

Hopefully, President Obama will stick to his guns and refuse to take Mish'al's bait. While in the end we may have to deal with Hamas - after all, they did win the election, and would easily win again if there were to be an election today - Obama needs to insist that he get something in return. Renunciation of violence and recognition of Israel would be a good start.

Until all Palestinian leaders, be they Hamas, PLO, Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Authority, etc., recognize Israel's right to exist, there can be no peace process. Until that happens, Obama and Mish'al will only talk past each other, not to each other - and that's the way it should be.