Confirmed: A US sanctioned meeting with Hamas in Doha

On February 23rd a US foreign service officer named Rachel Schneller appeared on a panel with Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan, right here in Doha, at a Forum I attended that was hosted by the Al Jazeera Cente for Strategic Studies.

    I've been scooped on a story I should have owned.
    On February 23rd a US foreign service officer named Rachel Schneller appeared on a panel with Hamas spokesman Osama Hamdan, right here in Doha, at a Forum I attended that was hosted by the Al Jazeera Cente for Strategic Studies.
    According to today's Wall Street Journal, she acknowledged sitting with Hamdan afterwards for a friendly cup of tea, in a meeting that had the blessing of her superiors back at the US state department.

    Now that is news.
    Below is what I submitted that night from Dubai (I had to travel from Doha that afternoon on business and could not finish the discussion).
    But first, a quick explanation on why I asked our web editors not to run it that night.
    A good friend, rich in contacts and very helpful to me in the past, was also in Doha to participate with Rachel in the Forum. When I called him to fact check something he very strongly urged me by phone to kill the story, even though Schneller's panel with Hamdan was televised live on Al Jazeera Arabic Mubashar (the CSPAN equivalent). I did so in the interests of preserving both my friendship and contact, and also to avoid upsetting the good offices and hospitality of the Jazeera Centre and their gutsy guest. That's just the way it goes sometimes.
    Here is what I originally submitted, which I cautiously titled with a question mark. (The WSJ confirmed that Foggy Bottom formally approved the meet, so no grammatical caveats needed).
    February 23rd:
    A US diplomat sits with Hamas?
    I could not believe my eyes this morning at the Al Jazeera Centre for Strategic Studies conference on Political Islam. Perusing the programme I noticed a panel that included Hamas politburo member and spokesman Osama Hamdan alongside my friend and fellow blogger Steve Clemons.

    But what made my eyes pop out was the panel's inclusion of Rachel Schneller, an international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations AND commissioned US Foreign Service Officer.

    I had to travel and did not make their debate but heard from colleagues that it was quite impressive.

    Rachel is on loan to CFR but maintains her US government affiliation while on secondment to America's premier foreign policy NGO. US diplomats frequently go on loan to such quirky posts like the Multinational Force Observers (MFO) Sinai, to universities, or for 1-year assignments at other institutions like the United Nations. While foreign service officers sometimes are required to technicaly "resign," these programmes are typically seen as career enhancing, with the understanding by all parties that your desk (and security clearances) await you upon return.

    I can't imagine she would have attended this conference without thinking through all of these things. Hamdan was not a surprise guest.

    The optic of a quasi-active US diplomat sharing a most public platform with a Hamas official was striking.

    I can only imagine the buzz back at CFR's watercooler when she returns. Former Bush administration hardliner and fellow CFR scholar Elliot Abrams may want to sit when he learns the news. Es tu Brute?

    It was Abrams mission during 2000-2008 period to see the Hamas movement decimated, embargoed--even overthrown. But still they remain, with the same credibilty and legitimacy that many Islamist groups enjoy in the region.

    Rachel must be worrying about the stigma. Therepy is close at hand. Steve Clemons and Robert Malley are both in Doha to participate in the Al Jazeera Centre's 3-day forum. Clemons did a fantastic interview with Hamas Leader Khalid Mishaal recently, and did not seem to suffer as his access to Washington's political establishment remains legendary.

    Robert Malley, who also spoke at the Al Jazeera forum, might have some pointers too on how to mitigate the "reputational" costs, though they're not as high as they used to be. Malley was an extremely trusted aide of then President Bill Clinton when he advised him on Arab-Israeli matters at the White House. Pity that Rob was thrown under the bus as an Obama campaign foreign policy adviser for his willingness to meet with Hamas as senior director of the International Crisis Group NGO. Malley is still a player on Arab-Israeli policy in Washington and many believe his contacts will be vindicated in the future.

    Many in Washington and Tel Aviv have advocated meeting with Hamas, including Colin Powell and former Mossad chief Efram Halevy, and then of course they've also gained company with former US President Jimmy Carter.

    I'm curious to see if higher-level, less ambiguous contacts will follow this important, baby step.

    Bravo to the Al Jazeera Centre for Strategic Studies for making history. And it all happened in sunny Doha.

    Note on photograph at the top of this story: Schneller sits on the far right, Hamdan on the far left



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