Washington Babylon — March 3, 2008, 12:43 pm

More Failure for “Sensible” American Middle East Policy

Former CIA official: concessions by Israel cannot be discussed ”rationally” in United States

The week opens with President Bush’s “peace plan” for the Middle East in shambles, more than 100 Palestinians dead, many of them civilians, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice heading to the Middle East for a round of talks with Israeli and Palestinian officials. A New York Times story published today said that encouraging Israel to negotiate a cease-fire with Hamas would pose problems because according to Middle East experts consulted by the newspaper, that would “further legitimize Hamas.”

Martin Indyk, a former United States ambassador to Israel, said reaching a cease-fire would “make it look like Hamas is the entity with which Israel and the West should be negotiating . . . Excluding them doesn’t work,” Indyck told the Times, “and including them doesn’t work, either. So what do you do? This is a situation that does not lend itself to a sensible policy.”

But Hamas already has legitimacy among Palestinians, who in theory are a party to peace talks. The group won the 2006 Palestinian elections and enjoys far greater popular support than Mahmoud Abbas, the American-backed Palestinian president. You don’t have to endorse Hamas to recognize that any “sensible” policy involves conversations with the group. Even Israelis understand this, a poll published by the newspaper Haaretz last week showed. According to the survey, 64 percent of Israelis “say the government must hold direct talks with the Hamas government in Gaza toward a cease-fire and the release of captive soldier Gilad Shalit.” Only 28 percent opposed such talks.

In this country any such talk of engagement with Hamas amounts to political heresy. Indeed, on the broader subject of Israel and Palestine, there are no notable differences between the major presidential candidates. After generating a wave of criticism for once merely expressing sympathy for Palestinians, Barack Obama was long ago bullied into submission. “In carefully worded speeches to American Jewish groups, [Obama] has stressed an absolute commitment to Israeli security and played down anything remotely likely to cause controversy,” the Washington Post said in a story today.

The Post said that despite Obama’s “professions of being the candidate of change, most of the policies outlined in his speeches, in the briefing papers issued by his campaign and in the written answers he gave to questions submitted by The Washington Post fall well within the mainstream of Democratic and moderate Republican thinking. On a number of issues, such as the Middle East peace process, Obama advocates a continuation of Bush Administration policies but promises more energetic and intense presidential involvement.” Despite all of this, Obama is being increasingly attacked on the ridiculous grounds that he is “an enemy of Israel.”

I recently spoke with Paul Pillar, a 30-year CIA veteran who between 2000 and 2005 coordinated intelligence on the Middle East, about current American policy and the likelihood that it might change under the next administration, whichever that might be. Pillar, now a visiting professor in the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University, said:

Engagement with Hamas is essential to any Israeli-Palestinian peace. Politically that’s a very hard position to take in this country–and impossible for this administration, which considers Hamas to be nothing more than a terrorist group. The Israeli-Palestinian issue is going to be difficult for the next president as well. Israel needs to be pushed to make concessions, and that’s a topic that we can’t seem to be able to discuss rationally in this country. Perhaps the only real chance that the topic can be approached is if the next president has a successful first term and is re-elected in 2012, and if the economy is strong. Maybe then he or she will decide to make the huge effort required to address the situation–it would require that level of favorable circumstance.

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Many comedians consider stand-up the purest form of comedy; Doug Stanhope considers it the freest. “Once you do stand-up, it spoils you for everything else,” he says. “You’re the director, performer, and producer.” Unlike most of his peers, however, Stanhope has designed his career around exploring that freedom, which means choosing a life on the road. Perhaps this is why, although he is extremely ambitious, prolific, and one of the best stand-ups performing, so many Americans haven’t heard of him. Many comedians approach the road as a means to an end: a way to develop their skills, start booking bigger venues, and, if they’re lucky, get themselves airlifted to Hollywood. But life isn’t happening on a sit-com set or a sketch show — at least not the life that has interested Stanhope. He isn’t waiting to be invited to the party; indeed, he’s been hosting his own party for years.

Because of the present comedy boom, civilians are starting to hear about Doug Stanhope from other comedians like Ricky Gervais, Sarah Silverman, and Louis CK. But Stanhope has been building a devoted fan base for the past two decades, largely by word of mouth. On tour, he prefers the unencumbered arrival and the quick exit: cheap motels where you can pull the van up to the door of the room and park. He’s especially pleased if there’s an on-site bar, which increases the odds of hearing a good story from the sort of person who tends to drink away the afternoon in the depressed cities where he performs. Stanhope’s America isn’t the one still yammering on about its potential or struggling with losing hope. For the most part, hope is gone. On Word of Mouth, his 2002 album, he says, “America may be the best country, but that’s like being the prettiest Denny’s waitress. Just because you’re the best doesn’t make you good.”

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