Mideast Players Differ On Approach to Hamas

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 16, 2008

During a trip to the Middle East this month, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice served as an informal go-between for Hamas and its sworn enemy, the government of Israel, helping to arrange a tentative truce, according to U.S., Israeli and Arab officials.

The United States has long considered Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that seized the Gaza Strip last year, to be a terrorist group, and the Bush administration remains firmly opposed to direct talks until Hamas renounces violence and recognizes Israel. President Bush has decried Hamas's "devotion to terrorism and murder" and said there cannot be peace until the group is dismantled.

Throughout her trip, Rice never publicly uttered the term "cease-fire." But at the request of Egypt, Rice privately asked Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to issue a public statement that Israel would halt attacks if Hamas stopped firing crude rockets at Israeli towns and cities. One day later, Egyptian officials could point to the statement in talks with Hamas, and the daily barrage suddenly stopped.

Rice's actions underscore the nuanced series of signals that are typical of Middle East diplomacy, but they also highlight the central role today of Hamas, formally called the Islamic Resistance Movement, in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Now some experts -- and even Israelis -- are questioning whether the isolation of Hamas continues to make sense.

A bipartisan group of foreign-policy luminaries, including former national security advisers Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft, issued a statement before the Annapolis peace talks in November that said, "As to Hamas, we believe a genuine dialogue with the organization is far preferable to its isolation." The group suggested that an initial approach could be made by envoys for the United Nations or the Quartet, a peace-monitoring group. "Prompting a cease-fire between Israel and Gaza would be a good starting point," the statement said.

Rice's predecessor, Colin L. Powell, last year told National Public Radio that some way must be found to talk to Hamas, arguing, "I don't think you can just cast them into outer darkness and try to find a solution to the problems of the region without taking into account the standing that Hamas has in the Palestinian community." An aide said last week he retains that view.

Even the State Department acknowledged that the question is in the air when the department's official blog this month posed its question of the week: "Should the U.S. engage Hamas in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians?" The question generated many long and emotional answers -- and State's spokesman was compelled to deny that the posting indicated that a change in policy was under consideration.

In Israel, a former head of the Mossad spy agency, Efraim Halevy, has argued for talks, saying it is impossible to defeat Hamas politically. His position was once a lonely one in Israel, but a poll last month in Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper, found that 64 percent of Israelis favor direct talks with Hamas.

But many experts in the United States argue that Hamas should not be rewarded for bad behavior. Former Clinton administration negotiator Dennis Ross said, "It would give the sense that the world has to adjust to them, and immediately demoralize the Palestinians you want to work with."

In Cairo, Rice was asked whether the current policy is counterproductive. "This isn't a question about the United States approaching Hamas," she answered. "This is a question about what Hamas intends and is prepared to do in terms of the very clear international standards that it has not met."

Assistant Secretary of State C. David Welch, Rice's point man on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, acknowledged to Congress last week that Hamas's control of Gaza had greatly complicated the choices for the United States, "presenting us with very difficult policy issues and choices and presenting Israel with a set of bad alternatives as well."

A senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to speak more freely, said that "Israel talks indirectly to Hamas all the time," primarily as part of negotiations to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, who was seized by gunmen and taken into Gaza nearly two years ago. "Israel has found a balance between a paralyzed position -- that Hamas is not legitimate -- but at the same time figured out a way to deal with the reality it represents."

Any cease-fire deal is likely to include an agreement resulting in the release of Shalit and hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, diplomats said.

The U.S. official, however, said the issue is more complex for the United States, because Hamas does not hold any U.S. citizens, and, in any case, the United States refuses to bargain for prisoners. He also said there is no interest on the part of the Quartet -- the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States -- to begin a dialogue with Hamas, in part because Russia had found that its limited efforts to launch talks were not productive. He characterized Rice's intervention as necessary to calm a situation that threatens to undermine the peace talks launched at Annapolis.

"Rude interruptions to the process need to be controlled," he said.

However, none of the players -- including Israel's Arab neighbors -- wants a solution that appears to grant Hamas any sort of victory, diplomats said. "No one can ignore Hamas. They are a reality," said an Arab diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the diplomatic sensitivities. "It's all about how much of a dividend to give them."

Arab and U.S. officials said that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has objected to a deal on Shalit because he fears Hamas would gain credit for the release of Palestinian prisoners. "Any agreement to be achieved has to be complemented with a success" for Abbas, the Arab diplomat said.

Some experts, such as Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, have said that the solution would be for Abbas to broker a cease-fire between Hamas and Israel. He said it is "probably premature and politically untenable" for direct talks with Hamas, but giving Abbas a central role between the two sides would give him greater legitimacy and help salve the wounds between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah faction over the Gaza takeover.

Bush administration officials reject this idea, saying it could make Abbas appear like a "petitioner" to Hamas.

Malley said that the administration's effort to empower Abbas is doomed to failure if he does not reach some sort of accommodation with Hamas. "A dangerous Hamas is a Hamas that has nothing to lose," he said.

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