One sunny morning in September 1993 I sat on the White House lawn, watching bemused as American political notables lined up for a “grip and grin” photo with Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. For twenty-five years previously–and until just days before that morning’s signing of the Oslo Accord–Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization had been judged by the US government to be a “foreign terrorist organization.” On Capitol Hill and in most of the mainstream media, the excoriation of Arafat and the PLO had been long-lasting and virulent. But now, here were scores of Congressional leaders and media bigwigs lining up to be part of the new pro-Oslo zeitgeist.
What made the difference was that the Israeli government had shifted its stance. When that shift was made public, virtually the entire US political class turned on a dime. Today two very significant forces in the Middle East–Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon–are in nearly the same position the PLO was locked into before the early 1990s. Indeed, this time the United States is more directly participating in hostile actions against the current “untouchables” than it ever was against the pre-Oslo PLO. After Hamas won the Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, the Bush Administration orchestrated a harsh boycott of the new Hamas-led government, which left Washington’s “pro-democracy” stance in the Middle East in tatters. Then in summer 2006, when Israeli airplanes and artillery were trying to wipe Hezbollah–and much of Lebanon’s national infrastructure–off the map, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice worked overtime to prevent the Security Council from calling a cease-fire.
Our country’s diplomacy has been held hostage to Israel’s preference to fight rather than engage with these two significant movements. But the United States has its own extremely pressing interests in the Middle East. Key among these are the need to find a way to withdraw from Iraq and radically de-escalate tensions with Iran in order to minimize US losses and lethal disorder in the region. There are many close links between the Persian Gulf and the Arab-Israeli theater. As the Baker-Hamilton report of last year rightly noted, if Washington wants to avoid catastrophe in Iraq, it must be prepared to undertake a vigorous and effective push for Israeli-Palestinian peace. Recently, the Bush Administration has attempted to look as if it is doing something on this issue. Bush and Rice are trying to organize a November summit in Annapolis to be attended by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The Administration is also hoping for high-level representation from the Arab states, especially Saudi Arabia. But Washington has deliberately excluded Hamas. Indeed, the current moves are intended to weaken Hamas, which is often portrayed as merely a tool of an irredeemably hostile Iran.
Hamas and Hezbollah have both been on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations for many years. After 9/11, that designation became even more constricting as the Administration threw huge new resources into attacking the financing and propaganda/information mechanisms of a range of Islamist groups it had designated as targets in the “war on terror.” The launching of this new concept completely blurred the distinction between those groups that, like Al Qaeda, aptly fit the description of “rootless cosmopolitans” and those that, like Hamas and Hezbollah, are deeply rooted within stable national communities to which they provide real services and to which they hold themselves accountable.