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September 26, 2016 / 23 Elul, 5776
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A Perplexing Middle East Policy

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Until talk of a Gaza cease-fire started percolating, the U.S. was largely supportive of Israel’s Operation Protective Edge. President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry rarely missed an opportunity to proclaim Israel’s right to defend itself (though with the caveat that every effort be made to minimize civilian casualties).

As the war went on, the U.S. refrain included statements to the effect that there could no rewarding of Hamas’s aggression. Yet at some point, American statements began referring to the need for cease-fire negotiations to include such matters as Hamas’s demands for a lifting of the Israeli and Egyptian blockades, the easing of restrictions on civilian travel through now closed crossings out of Gaza, and the opening of a Hamas seaport and airport.

At first glance this sudden, albeit tentative, legitimizing of Hamas’s political agenda seemed out of place, given the U.S. government’s inclusion of Hamas on its list of terrorist organizations. And it also unceremoniously pulled the rug out from under Israel. In fact, the change is not just contrary to the longtime U.S. position toward Hamas, it also seems to run counter to virtually all of the Obama administration’s stated goals in the Middle East.

For years the president and more recently Secretary Kerry have been touting the virtues of a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Why then would they act in a way that bestows esteem on Hamas, which vociferously opposes an enduring agreement of any kind with Israel, and that boosts Hamas in the eyes of Palestinians as the engine of Palestinian success, inevitably inviting a comparison with the hapless Mahmoud Abbas who, at least publicly, champions a two-state solution?

And now, according to a story broken by the Wall Street Journal, Hamas can even claim that its efforts resulted in America’s holding back on arms supplies to Israel.

Another reason why it makes no sense to strengthen Hamas is that doing so will inevitably benefit Iran. Despite the current differences between Hamas and Iran over Syria, does anyone doubt a Hamas seaport or airport would be an enormous boost to Iranian interests?

And why would the U.S. align itself on these issues with Turkey and Qatar, longtime advocates of Hamas’s interests? Both have served as significant props for Hamas’s scuttling of any serious talk of a resolution between Israel and the Palestinians.

It is also inexplicable that the Obama administration would act in defiance of the interests of Arab countries that would be key to securing a two-state solution. It is no secret that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan are diametrically opposed to Hamas, if only as a matter of self-preservation vis-a-vis the militant Islamist world.

Moreover, as a collateral matter, what kind of signal is the United States sending to Islamists around the world? That ultimately there need be no fear of Washington, even respecting its loyalty to allies?

These developments are perplexing, to say the least. So much so that even Obama’s first secretary of state is distancing herself from the administration’s Mideast mess. To be sure, Hilary Clinton has an eye on a White House run in 2016, so her sincerity is suspect. Whatever her motivation, one can only hope Messrs. Obama and Kerry get their foreign policy act together well before the next presidential campaign begins in earnest.

For better and for worse, they are the leaders we have – and will remain so for another two and a half years.

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