Zvi Barel
Haaretz (Opinion)
July 3, 2011 - 12:00am

How would Israel respond if a "senior American official" were to declare that the United States was prepared to speak with Hamas leadership?

Don't be alarmed just yet. The United States still maintains its policy of not speaking with Hamas, yet last week America did lift its ban on speaking with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. From this point on, there's no need for meetings in a dark alley. Official American representatives can talk with any member of the Brotherhood. Washington has not acted prematurely. The Egyptian army and the temporary Egyptian government, along with the majority of presidential candidates in Egypt, view the Brotherhood as an integral part of society and politics in Egypt. The announcement by one of its leaders, Abdel Moneim Abu al-Fotouh, that he intends to run for president, was not seen as an unusual step in Egypt.

"There will not be free, just elections in Egypt unless we agree to speak with persons who are part of the democracy," said Edward "Ned" Walker, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Egypt and Israel. While Israel hides its smirks over pictures of the broken propeller on one of the flotilla ships, and while it threatens to wage war against a few hundred citizens of the world who want to challenge its "sovereignty" in Gaza, Washington has decided suddenly to pursue realistic diplomacy.

The decision should come as no surprise. An American administration that engages in a dialogue with the Taliban in Afghanistan, which had a political discussion with terror organizations in Iraq, and which cooperates with a Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah members, does not need to make excuses when it holds meetings with an Islamist movement that takes part in Egyptian politics, even if its ideology is radical.

Those alarmists who search for a "tsunami" can view this as the first wave. That is because the Muslim Brotherhood is the mother organization of Hamas, and the next question that will arise is why America shouldn't speak with Hamas. After all, Hamas is an integral part of Palestinian politics and society, and has also won a decisive majority in election balloting; and now, after its reconciliation with Fatah, Hamas will vie in the next Palestinian parliamentary elections. The official excuse for a no-discussion policy is that Hamas has not denounced terror as a means of attaining political objectives, and that it also does not recognize the state of Israel - neither as a Jewish state nor as a state at all. At first glance, these are compelling justifications. Yet the Muslim Brotherhood does not exactly view Israel as the Jewish state either. The Muslim Brotherhood does not uphold terror, but it does not view the armed Palestinian struggle as terror. Rather, the Muslim Brotherhood sees it as a liberation struggle against occupation. And if terror is the yardstick, how can Washington justify its cooperation with the Lebanese government, which includes Hezbollah, a group listed by the United States as a terror organization?

The contradictions in U.S. foreign policy are not the key point. Instead, the crux of the matter is the way Washington is drawing its new map of enemies and friends. To be precise, the United States isn't drawing the map - instead, developments in the Arab world are compelling America to revisit its policy in the region. What has been happening in Cairo, cities in Syria, and in Bahrain does not stem from planned American policy; these are venues where American policy is refashioning itself, and those who claim that policy will soon be compelled to reconsider their position on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Washington defines enemies and friends not just for itself; its foreign policy positions become a road map for other countries of the world. The "threat" posed to Israel has to do with this fact. Suddenly, it is becoming clear to the American government that Mahmoud Abbas is not cowering under pressure to not turn to the UN for statehood recognition. It is becoming clear that the internal Palestinian rapprochement agreement has been signed despite U.S. opposition, and that Hamas will be a cornerstone in any diplomatic process. What will Washington do when Palestinian elections are held? Should it boycott the Palestinian parliament or the new Palestinian government? Should it ostracize the new Palestinian president if that president belongs to Hamas? Hamas, after all, is "part of the democracy." Perhaps America will try to preempt a diplomatic debacle, and will reach out to talk with Hamas before the elections so that it can conduct a dialogue with the organization after the polling? The Gaza flotilla is soon likely to appear a pleasure cruise compared to the American diplomatic flotilla, which has disembarked in Egypt. But why fret about this right now, when we can ponder the Gaza flotilla carnival?


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