Roger Cohen to Israel: 'What Is the Problem' in Talking to Terrorist Group Hamas?

Talking to Charlie Rose, Times columnist Roger Cohen again downplayed Israel's security fears, urged them to talk to the anti-Israeli terrorist group Hamas, and insisted the U.S. pursue engagement with Iran's corrupt president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Times foreign affairs columnist Roger Cohen appeared on PBS's Charlie Rose talk show to talk about Iran. Cohen, who writes the "Globalist" column for the Times international edition and also appears in the U.S. version, has courted controversy with his defense of the Iranian regime and apparently careless attitude toward Israel's security interests. (He thinks calling Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists is unduly simplistic.)

In his 20-minute segment with Rose, Cohen again downplayed Israel's security fears, urged them to talk to the anti-Israeli terrorist group Hamas, and insisted the U.S. pursue engagement with Iran's corrupt yet also sometimes "pragmatic and prudent" leadership, which is headed by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who returned to power this year in a dubious election followed by a bloody crackdown on dissent.

Some excerpts from Cohen's October 15 appearance:

Host Charlie Rose: President Ahmadinejad has closed down newspapers, and three protesters who participated in the post-election demonstrations have been sentenced to death. Joining me now is Roger Cohen. He writes "The Globalist" column for the "New York Times" and the "International Herald Tribune." He was in Iran during the election and the violence that followed. I am pleased to have him here at this table. Tell me how you see the dilemma for Israel as a country today looking at its best interest and its future.

Times columnist Roger Cohen: Well Israel's a small country surrounded by enemies, some of which talk openly about Israel's destruction. And so you have to get inside the Israeli psyche and understand that. However, Charlie, when I listened to Prime Minister Netanyahu at the U.N. last month, the first half of the speech was about the Holocaust, about the Nazis, comparing Iran to the Nazi regime. And my feeling is that Israel lives in a changing Middle East. There are threats to it, but let's try to be sober about this. Let's look at Hamas, look at Hezbollah, look at Iran and see if we can take the rhetoric down a notch or two. And let's set aside these, I think, very misleading comparisons and analogies with the Holocaust, and deal, for example, with an Iranian regime that is erratic and sometimes ruthless, but has also proved over the last 30 years that it can be pragmatic and prudent. Indeed, that's one reason it has survived.

Rose: [Minister of intelligence and atomic energy in Israel] Meridor says all they need is a bargaining partner on the other side because they know the demographic thing is coming down on them and they don't have much choice.

Cohen: But then at the same time you have Foreign Minister Lieberman saying the other day that he doesn't see any prospect of a settlement for years to come, and there is no opportunity for that. And you have Israel saying that Hamas is an interlocutor with whom it cannot speak. Now, the Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel. So you can see the problem there.... If Hamas is ready to talk, and there are lots of different strands to Hamas, if Hamas is ready to talk, what is the problem? What is the harm in trying that avenue? Because I think it's in Israel's interest to try and see a more united Palestinian interlocutor. And you are not going to do that so long as you say that Hamas is simply untouchable. I think over time Hamas can be coaxed to change, especially with a very pragmatic president like President Obama. He can help as can the special envoy George Mitchell. But we have to, I think, take some rhetorical clutter out of our minds and just look in a hardnosed way at the realities on the ground and see if we can move this forward.

About 11 minutes in, Cohen mentioned the corrupt elections that returned Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power, but concluded that the United States should engage with him anyway or risk going "back to Bush."

Cohen: It was one of those moments when it's just a privilege to be a journalist, and it was uplifting and quite devastating. It's been a very tough call for me whether - there are people, saying well now there's an opposition, you know, we should be supporting the opposition, we should not talk to this government, this government's illegitimate. And you know my feelings about the election. But I still feel - I then ask myself, if we follow that path, where are we? We're kind of back to Bush, you know. We've cut off relations. Iran is part of some evil axis again, and we're going nowhere. And I just feel that, in the long run, if we can break through the American-Iranian psychosis, that will help the people who want a freer-

Rose: -the American-Iranian psychosis?

Cohen: Yeah. Then we are helping the people who want a freer Iran, a more open Iran, an Iran more in touch with the world. So in the long term, difficult as it is to pursue engagement right now, it's the right course, because that ultimately will lead, if it works, I think, to an Iran that's more open and more democratic.