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Hamas softening throws twist in talks

Secretary of State Rice, in the Middle East ahead of next month's peace talks, says Hamas has no role.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 17, 2007


Hamas, the Palestinian movement that months ago battled rival Fatah for control of Gaza, is now beginning to wield a more conciliatory weapon: messages of moderation.

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A spokesman for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, deposed as Palestinian prime minister after militant Islamists staged a coup in June, said Tuesday that Hamas does not oppose peace talks with Israel.

Such statements from Mr. Haniyeh's group in Gaza come at a fragile moment for Israeli-Palestinian relations. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been shuttling between Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Cairo to build support for a hoped-for Middle East peace summit sponsored by the Bush administration.

The US and Israel had been banking on the fact that they wouldn't have to factor in Hamas, which both call a terrorist group, in the new push for progress.

Instead, they could focus on working with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, whom both sides consider a moderate, since the government uniting the rival factions fell apart after the Gaza coup.

But Ghazi Hamad's comments Tuesday throw an interesting twist into the rush for talks expected for November, a push already being resisted by Arab states. The spokesman for Haniyeh told reporters that holding discussions with Israel – which Fatah is now doing at an increased clip – was not objectionable on Islamic grounds. "The principle of negotiating with the enemy is not legally and religiously rejected."

Having Hamas out of the political picture has enabled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to tell his public that Israel now has a reasonable "partner" with whom to do business. And Mr. Abbas has said that he is not seeking reconciliation with Hamas.

Now, however, there have been indications from both sides of the Palestinian divide that there is a desire to restart the dialogue, which may further complicate Ms. Rice's efforts to resolve deep differences ahead of the conference to be held in Annapolis, Md.

At the same time, however, it could also help build a sense of Palestinian unity and strengthen the Fatah leadership's mandate for reaching a peace deal with Israel.

Rice was in Cairo Tuesday in an attempt to shore up Arab support for an international conference. According to the Associated Press, the secretary won tempered Egyptian support in her quest to bring Israelis and Palestinians to the table. One of the sticking points is whether the two sides arrive with a defined outline of principles to be addressed.

"We will continue to work and help them to create this document and we will then be in a position I think fairly soon to talk about when this meeting ought to take place," Rice said, as the actual date of the meeting has not yet been set.

On Monday in Ramallah, after a meeting with Abbas, Rice said that there would be no involvement of Hamas in the upcoming meeting.

"We've been very clear what the criteria are for involvement in this process," she said. "If you're going to have a two-state solution, you have to accept the right of the other party to exist. If you're going to have a two-state solution that is born of negotiation, you're going to have to renounce violence."

Hamas, while it has expressed some openness regarding talks with both Israel and Fatah, does not recognize the right of Israel to exist.