Hamas leader roils Israel debate

Ismail Haniyeh appeared to suggest that peace could be made with Israel under certain conditions.

After a weekend during which it was portrayed as a party that might be ready to make peace with Israel under certain circumstances, Hamas has found itself walking a fine line between dogma and diplomacy.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Ismail Haniyeh, the top Hamas member in the Palestinian parliament and the man tapped to serve as prime minister, suggested that Hamas had no hatred of Israel and was prepared to consider recognition of the Jewish state as long as Israel pulls back to its 1967 boundaries and allows for the creation of a Palestinian state.

Such recognition is considered a prerequisite by Israeli officials as well as much of the international community for Hamas's place at any negotiating table.

But in the flurry of attention following the interviews indicating a more pragmatic bent, Mr. Haniyeh either retracted or clarified the statement, saying that his position had not been accurately portrayed.

Haniyeh told reporters in Gaza Sunday that he "did not tackle the issue of recognizing [Israel] in my interview with the Washington Post." Rather, he restated the Hamas position that was outlined by the group's founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, and which other senior members of the organization have repeated in the weeks since the group's surprise victory on Jan. 25: If Israel withdraws from land it captured in the 1967 war to make way for a Palestinian state and allows Palestinian refugees to return, Hamas would consider a long-term truce, or hudna.

Israel has viewed that offer as a nonstarter, since it doesn't involve signing an internationally backed peace accord. Moreover, it suggests that Hamas is not interested in putting its conflict with the Jewish state to rest, but only on hold while it works on gaining strength and arms.

And although some Israeli officials initially offered a cautious welcome to what had seemed like a potential opening from Haniyeh, others warned that Hamas had yet to indicate a willingness to take any of the key steps necessary for Israel-Palestinian dialogue to move forward.

"If Israel declares that it will give the Palestinian people a state and give them back all their rights, then we are ready to recognize them," Haniyeh said in the interview posted on the Washington Post website.

In reaction, Meir Sheetrit, an Israeli cabinet minister, said in an Army Radio interview that Haniyeh's comments could mean that "they [Hamas] may be starting to speak another language."

Israel's Foreign Ministry spokesman, however, says that Hamas was using "verbal gymnastics" but had not met the minimum requirements outline by United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan after Hamas's victory.

"There were three clear benchmarks which were articulated by the secretary-general," says Mark Regev. "He said that if Hamas wants to reach the level of internationally accepted interlocutor, they have to totally recognize Israel, they need to renounce terrorism, and come on board with international agreements.

"Ismail Haniyeh did not reach any of those benchmarks and that's clear," he adds. "We shouldn't let Hamas get away with word games. He's trying to market his product, but I still don't think it makes the mark."

In the Post interview, Haniyeh also said: "We do not have any feelings of animosity toward Jews. We do not wish to throw them into the sea. All we seek is to be given our land back, not to harm anybody."

Regev responded: "If he says we have nothing against Jews, he should read his own anti-Semitic charter." Regev was referring to Hamas's founding charter, which calls for Israel's destruction.

In the heady aftermath of its victory, awarding the Islamic Resistance Movement 74 out of 132 seats in parliament, Hamas has found itself in a difficult place vis-a-vis the rest of the international community, including donors in the US, Europe, and Japan.

Israel has encouraged its allies to isolate a Hamas-led government and to avoid giving aid to it; Israel, the US, and some European countries consider Hamas, which has taken responsibility for scores of suicide bombings targeting civilians, a terrorist group.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, facing his own election challenges in a national ballot last month, has ordered a freeze on all transfers of tax revenues due to the Palestinian Authority, totaling about $50 million to $55 million per month.

Ziad Abu Amr, an independent legislator from Gaza who ran on a Hamas-affiliated ticket, pointed to Haniyeh's press conference denying the report as evidence of the sensitivity of the situation.

Haniyeh is known as a relative moderate within Hamas, and some Palestinians are hoping he will take a more practical approach to dealing with Israel.

But others, such as top official Mahmoud Zahar, are more hard-line and reject changing the organization's platform, which considers all of historic Palestine, including Israel, to be an Islamic territory upon which there can be no compromise.

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