Hamas Sees Opening in Meeting With Former Envoy; U.S. Says Nothing Has Changed

Israeli soldiers stand atop and next to a tank near their country's border with Gaza. The Islamist group Hamas has controlled Gaza since June 2007.
Israeli soldiers stand atop and next to a tank near their country's border with Gaza. The Islamist group Hamas has controlled Gaza since June 2007. (By Tsafrir Abayov -- Associated Press)

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By Howard Schneider and Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 16, 2009

JERUSALEM, July 15 -- To Hamas officials Bassem Naim and Mahmoud al-Zahar, a recent meeting in Switzerland with a former senior U.S. diplomat represented an opening in relations with the Obama administration, and a path to easing the Islamist group's isolation.

"I hope it will be the beginning of addressing some of the mistakes of the last three years," Naim said of his talks with Thomas R. Pickering, a former undersecretary of state and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "This was a first meeting to investigate the positions in general terms of both parties without any commitment on any side."

U.S. officials say they see the previously undisclosed June meeting between Pickering and the two senior Hamas officials differently. They said Pickering had not been asked to approach Hamas and had no official standing; U.S. officials learned of the meeting only afterward. Policy toward the Islamist group, they said, remains what it was under President George W. Bush: that Hamas is a terrorist organization with which the United States will not even sanction a meeting.

Before Hamas can participate in peace talks, "we have made it clear, both publicly and privately, through all kinds of pronouncements, that we would expect Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence and agree to abide by prior agreements," Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Wednesday in Washington.

Still, the Pickering meeting took place in the context of Obama administration efforts to reach out to forces in the Middle East that were shunned under Bush. It was held in between President Obama's June 4 speech in Cairo, in which he acknowledged popular support for Hamas among Palestinians, and a June 25 speech by Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, in which Meshal said the armed movement was ready to deal with the international community in order to reach an agreement with Israel. Pickering, co-chair of the nonprofit International Crisis Group, would not comment.

As the Obama administration's Middle East diplomacy intensifies -- with U.S. officials jetting to capitals such as Damascus that were off limits at the end of the Bush administration, and offering dialogue with Iran -- Hamas remains one of the most significant outliers.

Hamas is, at once, a political party, a paramilitary group that targets Israeli civilians and troops, a provider of charitable services, and a religious organization. The group seized control of the Gaza Strip in June 2007 in a clash with the Fatah movement of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. The authority continues to hold sway in the West Bank.

Even as Obama pushes for a renewal of talks between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, there is no clear plan for how to address the presence of an organization that won 2006 Palestinian legislative elections but does not recognize Israel and remains committed to armed insurrection against the Jewish state.

Israeli officials say that since their offensive in Gaza ended earlier this year, they have been focused on preventing Hamas from rearming itself with smuggled or homemade weapons. Beyond that, U.S. and Israeli strategy rests on a hope that improving the economy and security in the West Bank will undercut popular support for Hamas and strengthen Palestinian moderates.

"If we can energize that process, it will do more to delegitimize Hamas than anything else," said Netanyahu spokesman Mark Regev.

The International Monetary Fund reported Wednesday that recent changes in Israel's network of checkpoints, as well as improvements in security, have put the West Bank economy on track for growth of as much as 7 percent this year. Gaza's economy remains under an Israeli blockade, with unemployment estimated at 40 percent or more.

In an interview after touring the West Bank this week, special Middle East envoy Tony Blair said that, if current trends continue, Hamas would soon "have a choice" as Gaza's 1.5 million residents slip further behind Palestinians in the West Bank.


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