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My talk with Hamas about peace with Israel

The US should follow the Northern Ireland and South African models – which had principles, not preconditions.

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Hamas, they said, must renounce violence, recognize Israel, and sign on to all the agreements previously reached by the Palestinian Authority (PA.) (Another challenge has been Washington's refusal, until now, to consider any reframing of those demands.)

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Hamas, part of the solution?

I interviewed Hamas head Khaled Meshaal, in Damascus, Syria, on June 4. He restated his opposition to the preconditions, on principle. He noted that Washington did not apply any such preconditions to hard-line members of Israel's government. Also, he pointed out that in Mr. Obama's speech in Cairo, he had called for talks with Iran's government without any preconditions at all.

Discussing the "Mitchell Principles," established by Mitchell during his successful peacemaking in Northern Ireland, Mr. Meshaal argued that they were applied equally to all sides. They were established during Mitchell's earliest rounds of meetings with the warring parties, rather than being preconditions for those contacts.

Meshaal is a sober, intelligent man who talks in a way that seems much more "political," and politically savvy, than religious. He stressed that Hamas wanted to be "part of the solution, not part of the problem."

He expressed a strong desire for Hamas to heal its present deep rift with Fatah. He also reaffirmed Hamas's support for a 2006 proposal whereby Abbas or other non-Hamas negotiators would conduct the actual peace negotiations with Israel. Any resulting peace agreement would then be submitted to a Palestinian-wide referendum, and Hamas would abide by its results, he said.

If Hamas and Fatah can rebuild enough trust to authorize a unified Palestinian team to start negotiating, this proposal could allow peace talks to proceed without finding a complete prior answer to the West's "dealing with Hamas" problem.

Meshaal also restated Hamas's support for establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, in the areas that Israel occupied in 1967 – providing that all the occupied land, including East Jerusalem, as well as the right of Palestinian refugees to return to areas they fled in 1948, would also be implemented.

No Israeli government would accept this plan as it stands. But it represents a notable shift toward pragmatism and away from the positions stated in Hamas's 1988 Charter. It can be seen as Hamas's starting point in a negotiation in which all parties would need to show further flexibility. The hard-line language in Hamas's Charter – as in the 1999 Charter of Israel's Likud Party – could be changed somewhere in the future, as happened in the South African peacemaking, rather than requiring it to be changed upfront.

If Hamas is folded into the peacemaking, it would emerge – like South Africa's African National Congress, or Northern Ireland's Sinn Fein – as a very different organization afterward.

In addition, if Obama's peace diplomacy works – with Israelis, Palestinians, and other Arabs – then the whole Arab-Israeli arena would become very different from what we see today. Israel and its neighbors could finally turn their attentions away from preparing and waging war and rebuild their own societies in a climate of security and hope.

Helena Cobban's latest book is "Re-engage! America and the World After Bush." She blogs at