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The Honest Broker

Robert Malley, a former Clinton official, says Hamas must be engaged

Lee Smith
April 14, 2010
Robert Malley at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.(Jamie Rose/Getty Images)
Robert Malley at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing.(Jamie Rose/Getty Images)

“The healthy thing to do is listen,” Robert Malley told me last week. The former Clinton Administration Middle East policy aide will listen to anyone, even his critics inside the Beltway. A few years ago I sat on a panel with Malley at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute, where Malley found himself amid a pro-Bush crowd and isolated, just like the Syrian regime with whom he was then urging Washington should engage. At the end of the session, I leaned over to tell him that I admired his nerve, and he looked at me like he didn’t know what I could possibly mean. With his policy establishment pedigree—undergraduate at Yale; law school at Harvard, alongside future President Barack Obama; a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford; a Supreme Court clerkship with Justice Byron White; and a fellowship at the Council on Foreign Relations—Malley wears his edginess easily. After all, the reason he’s back in the news again is for speaking to Hamas officials.

“I work for a think tank”—the International Crisis Group—“whose mandate is to come up with ideas about how to prevent or resolve deadly conflict,” Malley told me over the phone on his way to catch a plane to Europe, where he was raised. Did he brief the Obama Administration on his talks with Palestine’s Islamic Resistance? “Even the Bush Administration was at times interested in hearing our analysis,” he says of his work with the Washington-based ICG, where he is program director for Middle East and North Africa. “They did their due diligence, as does the Obama Administration. They wanted to hear the conclusions that we reached.”

Malley and the ICG are understandably cautious, if not cagey, in their presentation and wording, but their main conclusion couldn’t be clearer: Hamas is an essential partner if the United States wants to reach an agreement to create a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. “It’s very simple,” says Malley. “If you are going to have a historic agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis, it’s difficult to do so with a counterpart that can’t speak with one voice.”

In other words, it doesn’t matter how much Washington loves the Palestinian Authority’s reform-minded Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, or how much success Fayyad has in growing the West Bank economy and strengthening his U.S.-trained security forces. Without the Israel Defense Force in the West Bank, Fayyad would be a dead man, and Hamas would take over in a year to 18 months. Then Hamas would be firing rockets not at small, working-class villages in southern Israel, like Sderot, but rather directly into the center of Israel—Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and Ben Gurion International Airport. Since a conflict on that scale is also unsustainable, goes Malley’s argument, you need to negotiate with the party that will wage that war: Hamas.

While some have argued that Malley is serving as a back channel to Hamas, enabling the Obama Administration to keep some distance from a project that might well alienate the White House’s Jewish supporters, Malley explains that he forecasts no talks between Washington and Hamas anytime in the near future, nor does he advocate such talks right now. “The U.S. is not going to speak to Hamas tomorrow or any time soon,” says Malley. “The U.S. would say, ‘Meet quartet requirements’ ”—by acknowledging Israel’s right to exist, renouncing violence and accepting past agreements—“Hamas would say, ‘No thanks.’ And they’d walk away from each other.”

Malley is portrayed by America’s pro-Israel right wing as a villain, a terrorist groupie-cum-Manchurian candidate who wants to bring Israel to its knees and to sell the United States out to its enemies. In reality he’s a highly credentialed product of America’s mainstream social and political institutions, from the Ivy League to the peace process. It’s true that his consultations with armed Arab militants smack of the European leftist thumbing his nose at the American bourgeoisie. But his air of aristocratic detachment, of being slightly above the fray—both cooler and smarter than other Washington figures like Flynt Leverett and Mark Perry who also make a living by talking to terrorists—have earned him the grudging respect of his Beltway adversaries.

Now, Malley is savvy enough to be thinking two moves ahead in a board game of someone else’s design. If there is going to be a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians, then Hamas, the outfit that refuses to accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state, is going to have to be engaged. The alternative is putting aside the peace process, a choice that, as President George W. Bush found out, no U.S. president can afford to make for the sake of his domestic and international standing. Since the United States has no intention of defeating Hamas militarily, and neither Washington nor Europe will allow Israel to do so, the only alternative is to make Hamas a partner to the just, comprehensive, and lasting peace that has eluded Palestinians and Israelis since the founding of the Jewish state.

Of course it was the fact that Malley had been meeting with Hamas members that compelled the Obama campaign to drop him as an unofficial foreign policy adviser in the spring of 2008. “I’ve never hidden the fact that in my job with the International Crisis Group I meet all kinds of people,” Malley said at the time. What upset him was when the criticism became personal. “I shouldn’t have to say that I’m Jewish, but here I am saying so,” Malley told the New York Times in response to charges that his decision to meet with Israel’s enemies marked him as a foe of the Jewish state.

The opposition to Malley’s courtship of Hamas was accompanied by vicious attacks on his father, Simon Malley, the late journalist and editor of Afrique Asie, a French publication famous for its sympathetic, even activist, perspective on third-world causes. Indeed, Malley has an authentic Non-Aligned Movement lineage. While working in New York as correspondent for one of the official government newspapers of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Malley’s father met Barbara Silverstein, an American working with the U.N. delegation of Algeria’s National Liberation Front, who later became his wife. They raised Robert in France before returning him to the United States, where he attended Yale. In 1998, he was appointed special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs, a position from where he watched the end of the Oslo Process deteriorate into the second intifada.

It was Malley’s series of articles about the end of Oslo in the New York Review of Books that first brought him attention outside of the small, insular circle of mid-level Washington policymakers. Along with his co-author Hussein Agha, he charged that Clinton as well as then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak bore as much responsibility as Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian side for failing to reach a historic agreement at Camp David. He argued that the peace process collapsed because Israelis and Americans failed to build Arafat’s confidence and that the land exchange offers the Americans and Israelis made were not generous enough. While Malley’s account was challenged by Barak in an NYRB interview with the Israeli historian Benny Morris, and by Bill Clinton himself, Malley’s take has become the de facto mainstream explanation of what went wrong.

The importance of Malley’s articles was not that they suggested that both Barak and Clinton were liars, but that they created a viable interpretative framework for continuing to blame both sides for the collapse of the peace process even after the outbreak of the second intifada. If both sides were at fault, then it would be possible to resume negotiations once things calmed down. If, on the other hand, the sticking point was actually about existential issues—the refusal to accept a Jewish state—and the inability, or unwillingness, of the Palestinians to give up the right of Arab refugees to return to their pre-1948 places of residence, then Washington would have been compelled to abandon the peace process after Clinton left office. Malley’s articles were a necessary version of history that allowed policymakers to move forward without forsaking the diplomatic and ideological currency that Washington has invested in the concept of creating an independent Palestinian state through a negotiated peace with Israel.

Obama is not interested in maintaining the status quo but in making history, and that means pushing through a real Palestinian-Israel peace deal. “The challenge for the administration,” as Malley explained in Senate testimony on Middle East peace last month, “is to devise a strategy that strives for our traditional goals but in a radically transformed environment. It will take persistence and flexibility, determination and creativity, a retooled approach toward local parties and the region.”

The realignment that Malley sees as a necessary challenge for U.S. foreign policy in the region means seeing the region as more than a series of confrontations between the United States and its allies and the Iranian axis. Malley believes that Syria is another player that the United States needs to engage. The ICG opened a Damascus office after the Bush Administration isolated Syria following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. “I don’t have a naïve belief that Syria is going to shift its position entirely just to suit Washington,” Malley told me. “But the U.S. could benefit from their gradual reorientation”—especially on the peace process. Part of what makes Syria attractive is its alliance with Hamas. Khaled Meshaal, chief of the Islamic Resistance’s political wing, lives in Damascus, and Syria is Hamas’s staunchest Arab ally, along with Iran providing the organization with arms and money as well as diplomatic and political support.

Of course, Syria doesn’t see things the way the United States does. Washington policymakers believe the peace process strengthens moderates by removing a source of fundamental tension that radicals can use to their advantage, yet the forces of radicalism can derail negotiations through violence anytime they want. This is precisely what makes the peace process so difficult to solve. As Tony Badran, a Syria/Lebanon specialist at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies explains, “For Syria, peace and resistance are simultaneous tools of attrition. Peace talks provide Damascus with impunity as it pursues resistance. In this framework, the peace process is just warfare by other means.”

Yet if it were truly the case that the peace process is warfare, then it would seem strange for Washington to compel its one strategic ally in the Middle East to weaken itself and strengthen its enemies. Even as the Obama Administration has showed its impatience with the Netanyahu government, it nonetheless respects Israel’s security concerns and appreciates the fact that Israel has fought two wars on its borders over the last five years after withdrawing from occupied territories. And this is why Washington has no intention to bring Hamas into the peace process—at least not yet.

The stumbling block is not so much Hamas’s unwillingness to recognize the existence of the Jewish state. After all, the Clinton Administration deftly ignored Arafat’s double-talk, and Hamas leaders have proclaimed their conditional willingness to accept a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, side by side with the Zionist entity. The problem is the large imaginary edifice constructed around the peace process, which grows bigger every year and which is founded on beliefs that are not rooted in the particulars of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather, the assumptions of the peace process are found in the grand theology of American diplomacy, which has held for generations that all outstanding issues will be finally resolved with a grand compromise that will establish a Palestinian state alongside a Jewish one with peace, prosperity, and security for both peoples. The peace process promises everything to everyone—an undivided Jerusalem and an Arab capital in Jerusalem—not because the project is feasible, but because it is proof of our good intentions toward Israel and the Arabs, the American Jewish community and the Muslim world. Even more difficult than a successful resolution to such a peace process is the admission of a mistake: that perhaps the solution might lie elsewhere, or that there is no solution at all.

To the disillusioned, the problem with the Middle East peace process is not Hamas but the premise of the peace process itself. That’s not Robert Malley’s fault. He didn’t invent the peace process; he’s just honest enough to state what everyone else chooses to wish away.

Lee Smith is the author of The Consequences of Syria.