Three days after Israel’s prime minister stood before Congress questioning the wisdom of a key Obama administration foreign policy initiative, National Security Adviser Susan Rice named as head of her Mideast desk an official who has stoked controversy with past criticisms of Israel and by meeting with Hamas terrorists.
Robert Malley, who has been serving as NSC senior director for Iran, Iraq, Syria. and the Gulf states, is set to succeed Philip Gordon as special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and the Gulf region.
“There could be no better successor to Phil than Rob Malley, who is already one of my most trusted advisers and ideally placed to provide a seamless transition,” Rice said in a statement.
“One of our country’s most respected experts on the Middle East, since February 2014 Rob has played a critical role in forming our policy on Iran, Iraq, Syria, and the Gulf. I look forward to working with him in his new role.”
Malley was serving as an informal Mideast adviser to the Obama presidential campaign in 2008 when it was reported he had held meetings with Hamas, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization.
At the time Malley held a top Mideast post at the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank, and he explained that in that position he met with “all kinds of people.”
That didn’t stop the campaign from cutting ties with him, however. The Times of London on May 10, 2008 quoted Obama spokesman Ben LaBolt as saying, “Rob Malley has, like hundreds of other experts, provided informal advice to the campaign in the past. He has no formal role in the campaign and he will not play any role in the future.”
Malley worked at the ICG as head of its Middle East program until early last year, when he took up the NSC post he has held until now. The promotion announced by Rice takes effect on April 6.
For some supporters of Israel, the concerns about Malley go back to an earlier stint in government, when he served as special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs from 1998-2001, and was involved in the 2000 Camp David peace talks.
At those talks, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak made an unprecedented offer to Palestinian Authority chairman Yasir Arafat consisting of the Gaza Strip, approximately 95 percent of the West Bank, and parts of Jerusalem. The Temple Mount would remain under Israeli sovereignty, but the Palestinians would keep “custodianship.” Arafat balked, and the marathon talks ended in failure.
A year later, Malley published an assessment of the talks, challenging the general view that Arafat’s intransigence was largely to blame for the outcome. He said it was a “myth” that Israel’s offer had met most if not all of the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations, and a “myth” that the P.A. had made no concessions.
After Hamas won legislative elections in the Palestinian self-rule areas in 2006, Malley wrote that the victory could help the Palestinian terrorist group’s political transformation.
“If dealt with wisely, the Islamists’ victory could present an opportunity for the United States to promote its core interests without betraying its core principles,” he argued.
“The more Hamas exercises government responsibility, the less it is likely to revert to violence.”
The U.S. and its Mideast “Quartet” partners laid down criteria for Hamas to have a political role – it must recognize Israel’s right to exist, renounce violence, and adhere to previous agreements signed between Israeli and Palestinian Authority leaders.
Hamas refused to comply – as it does to this day – and amid violent clashes with Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, it seized control of the Gaza Strip the following year.