By Amanda Kadlec Staff Writer April 19, 2010

Israel’s relationship with the United States is cooling to record lows. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s visit to Washington this past March, which was intended to smooth out the diplomatic debacle with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, only worsened tensions. Last week, Netanyahu abruptly announced his abstention from the national security meeting in Washington, further distancing Israel from facing admonishment from the Obama administration. Although it may be seen as a clever means to dart criticism over its nuclear weapons program, this move is poorly timed. The United States is now consistently pressuring its closest Middle East ally to change its ways. President Obama is standing firm in his condemnation of Israeli announcement to expand settlements in Palestinian East Jerusalem.

What is likely even more troubling to the Israeli government, however, is the recent contact between U.S. officials and leaders of Hamas. While non-disclosed, lower-level meetings between U.S. officers and members of the militant group have taken place; such open engagement with prominent leaders is new. Although the Obama administration insists that the meetings are unofficial and have not been commissioned by the White House, their presence nonetheless marks a shift in Washington’s course of action in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In his Cairo speech last year, President Obama declared a new and improved American relationship with the Muslim community. While some dismissed the commitment as rhetoric doomed to fail in the face of Washington realpolitik, the administration is beginning to back up the President’s words by allowing track-two diplomacy with Hamas. According to several media outlets, Robert Malley, a former campaign advisor to the current President, and Thomas Pickering, a former U.S. ambassador, also with close connections to Obama, met with Hamas leaders in summer 2009. More recently, International Affairs Fellow in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, Rachel Schneller, publicly met with a top Hamas official in March. Schneller is currently on leave from her permanent post at the State Department, and is closer in an official capacity to the administration than the other former diplomats who are engaging with the militant group in a civilian capacity.

The content of the meetings are being shared with the White House as they occur, and both the administration and the officials involved in the talks are quick to assure that U.S. policy remains the same; Hamas is still considered a terrorist group, and must meet specific requisites, including the recognition of Israel, before formal dialogue can begin. Nonetheless, such communication between Hamas and the White House is a significant step towards creating a longer-term dialogue and eventual acknowledgement of U.S. terms of engagement. Hamas is unlikely to immediately renounce terrorism or accept the existence of Israel. However, upper-level administration contacts such as these may open a door that could lead to dialogue, accelerate negotiations, and improve U.S. standing in the region.

Netanyahu’s Israel is obviously displeased with Washington’s tacit approval of the meetings. Even if Hamas met the conditions for dialogue, Israel would have to retract its land holdings to pre-1967 borders, which the government declares would present a direct security threat to Tel Aviv. Even the subtlest of White House contact with Hamas could eventually present Israel with a situation to which it is hardly prepared to adapt. The Obama administration seems unbending. In fact, Israel’s series of diplomatic flubs have incensed Washington so much that a return to the ironclad partnership of the past seems slim.

President Obama is questioning the unshakable bond to a point that is making Israel extremely uncomfortable, but it is necessary in order to reach U.S. goals. When General David Petraeus testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee in March, he argued that the enduring Palestinian-Israeli conflict “foments anti-American sentiment, due to a perception of U.S. favoritism for Israel.” He continued,

“Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples … and weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes in the Arab world. Meanwhile Al-Qaeda and other militant groups exploit that anger to mobilize support.”

Defense Secretary Robert Gates also supports this view. Consequently, the Obama administration is focused on protecting U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East and defending the national interest. Making contact with Hamas appears to be part of that strategy.

Although some deride the now-stalled peace process as a means to fan regional anti-Americanism and as rationale for Islamic terrorism, maintaining a cozy relationship with the Jewish state is a low priority. It is neither possible, nor practical to assume the Israelis and Palestinians can find a solution amongst themselves. Washington is taking a position, and standing firm while at the same time, remaining flexible to the constant flux of the situation. Listening to Hamas, even if only through second-party talks, may be the most effective way of building trust with the region’s Muslims, which has been Obama’s stated goal since taking office, and taking steps to secure a longer-term Middle East peace.

This article has been revised from its original version to better represent General David Petraeus’ views on the implications of the Israeli-Palestinian issue for U.S. security interests.