Israel Critic and Hamas Defender Named As Obama's New Mideast Coordinator

By Patrick Goodenough | March 9, 2015 | 4:29 AM EDT

Robert Malley has been named special assistant to the president and White House coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf region. (Screenshot: Cultures of Resistance)

(CNSNews.com) – 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 on Friday 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 the Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser Arafat of the Gaza Strip, around 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 P.A. 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.”

In the event 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 P.A. leaders.

Hamas refused to comply – as it does to this day – and amid violent clashes with Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction, it seized control of the Gaza Strip the following year.

‘So much misinformation about’ Hamas

Interviewed as part of a pro-Palestinian filmmaker’s 2010 documentary, Cultures of Resistance,  Malley said it was a mistake to think of groups like Hamas and Hezbollah only “in terms of their terrorist violence dimension.”

“They’re social political movements, probably the most rooted movements in their respective societies.”

Hamas, he said, “has deep loyalty, it has a charity organization, a social branch – it’s not something you could defeat militarily either.”

“There’s so much misinformation about them,” Malley continued. “I speak to them, my colleagues speak to them. Now we may disagree with them, but they have their own rationale.”

“None of them are crazies,” he said. “They may do things that we consider belong to a different realm of rationality, but within their own system, it’s often very logical.”

Back in 2007, Malley’s views on Syrian President Bashar al-Assad raised eyebrows too.

When then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was criticized after meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on April 4, 2007, Robert Malley suggested that Assad could change his troubling regional policies if the Bush administration would end its “hostile policy.” (Photo: SANA news agency)

When then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) visited Syria in April 2007 the Bush administration and others criticized her for doing so.

But Malley called the criticism “absurd,” and suggesting that Assad could change his policies on collaborating with Iran and terrorist groups if the Bush administration ended its “hostile policy.”

(Pelosi was the most senior U.S. politician to sit down with Assad since the Bush administration withdrew its ambassador two years earlier to protest the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

“We came in friendship, hope, and determined that the road to Damascus is a road to peace,” Pelosi said after the meeting, to which National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe responded, “Unfortunately, that road is lined with the victims of Hamas and Hezbollah, and the victims of terrorists who cross from Syria into Iraq. It’s lined with the victims in Lebanon, who are trying to fight for democracy there. It’s lined with human rights activists trying for freedom and democracy in Syria.”

“We have made it clear to high-ranking officials, whether they be Republicans or Democrats, that going to Syria sends mixed signals,” President Bush told reporters. “Photo opportunities and/or meetings with Assad lead the Assad government to believe they’re part of the mainstream of the international community.”

Then-Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) stepped in to defend Pelosi, saying that “America would be stronger if the White House started listening to Speaker Pelosi, Secretary James Baker, countless Republicans and everyone else who understands that effective foreign policy often requires talking with countries who aren’t our friends.”)

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow

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