Olive Branch From Hamas

By Robert D. Novak
Monday, April 16, 2007

On April 7, ending a seven-day visit to Israel, I finally got an interview I had sought for a year. I sat down in a Palestinian Authority office in Ramallah with a leader of Hamas, the extremist organization that won last year's elections. This leader pushed a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution and deplored suicide bombers. But officials in Washington seem not to want to hear Hamas calling for peace.

No fringe character, this was Naser al-Shaer: education minister and deputy prime minister in the new coalition government. Shaer signaled that the regime recognizes Israel's right to exist and forgoes violence -- conditions essential for talks about a viable Palestinian state adjoining Israel -- even if Hamas does not. "We hope that it is going to be a matter of time," Shaer told me. "But there is a big chance now."

When I returned to Washington last week, I sought the reaction of Bush administration officials (who refuse to have any contact with Hamas). I asked to talk to Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser who is most influential in policy on Israel. Abrams was once a fellow Cold Warrior and friend whom I have defended, but an aide let me know on Thursday that Abrams would not talk to me about Hamas. A senior State Department official also showed no interest in what Shaer said.

U.S. policy is not just adherence to the economic boycott that has devastated the Palestinian Authority since Hamas won elections in January 2006. U.S. government officials and contract workers in the Israeli-occupied territories must leave when someone from Hamas enters a room. Because the State Department lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, Americans not employed by the government fear that contacting a Hamas member of the Palestinian government would violate the USA Patriot Act.

Accordingly, a year ago, sources who put me in touch with other Palestinians refused to help with Hamas. The best contact I could make then was a brief telephone conversation with a Hamas underling.

I was back in Jerusalem on April 3, two weeks after Hamas brought the more moderate opposition Fatah party into the new national unity government. The Los Angeles Times had just run a remarkable op-ed by the new government's finance minister, Salam Fayyad, a political independent who lived in Washington for 20 years, served as a World Bank official and is well respected in the West. Fayyad wrote that the Palestine Liberation Organization's 1993 acceptance of Israel and disavowal of violence is "a crystal-clear and binding agreement" that "no Palestinian government has the authority to revoke." He added that the unity government's platform "explicitly" pledges to honor all PLO commitments.

Over dinner in a Ramallah restaurant on April 4, Fayyad told me that he offered his column simultaneously to several major American newspapers to get this story out quickly. But do his Hamas colleagues accept his reasoning? Fayyad made clear that he was not flying solo.

Just before my trip ended, the Palestinian Authority put me in touch with Shaer. On Aug. 19, when he was deputy prime minister in the all-Hamas regime, Shaer was seized in an Israeli raid of his Ramallah home and held for a month without charges or evidence.

In his ministry office a few days later, Shaer, who holds a doctorate from England's University of Manchester, looked nothing like the shirt-sleeved, tie-less man photographed when he was released in September. He was dressed in a stylish suit, but more telling than his appearance was what he said.

When I asked whether Hamas agreed with Fayyad's formulation, Shaer said it did not matter: "We are talking about the government, not groups." He said Hamas was no more relevant to Palestinian policy than the views of extremist anti-Palestinian cabinet member Avigdor Lieberman are to Israeli policy. Unexpectedly, Shaer expressed dismay that "previous attempts at peace were ruined by suicide bombers. Now, we look forward to a sustained peace."

While avoiding Israel-bashing, Shaer conjectured: "I don't think the Israeli government wants a two-state solution. Without pressure from the president of the United States, nothing is going to happen." That sounded like a plea for help from George W. Bush. But will he hear it if Elliott Abrams does not listen?

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company