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.

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.

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.

Harder-line players in Hamas have been critical of the conciliatory messages coming out of their prime minister's office, an indication that there may be a growing split in Hamas between ideologues and pragmatists. Others argue that Hamas is merely testing the waters, trying to see how its supporters will react.

"Hamas is ready to sit at the negotiating table if it is convinced that a political achievement can be made," Mr. Hamad said Tuesday. "But the general impression manifested by the current Israeli policy doesn't give any positive sign."

Those messages are not exactly enthusiastic. But they are some of the first indications from Hamas that suggest an openness to Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and are being viewed by observers with a combination of interest and caution. Since 1993, when the news of the Oslo Accords broke, Hamas has consistently rejected the peace process as contrary to Islamic ideals and Palestinian national goals.

The tilt toward a more moderate stance has been palpable just in the past week, and has come from the highest offices of the Hamas government in Gaza, which has been completely cut off from support from the international community as well as from the Fatah-run Palestinian government in the West Bank. Last Wednesday, Haniyeh, whom Hamas still considers the prime minister, said that Hamas's control of Gaza was not a permanent phenomenon.

"Our administration in Gaza is temporary," Haniyeh said at the end of a prayer gathering in Gaza City. He also said that Hamas would soon hold reconciliation talks with Fatah, and suggested that this would bring Hamas's complete control of Gaza to an end.

Such talks, Hamas officials said, might start as soon as the end of this week in Cairo. But some in Hamas hold out little hope for them, largely because they believe that real reconciliation would have to bring Hamas back into a government with Fatah – and might spoil the peace party.

"Hamas does have some relations with other Arab countries, so it is rational for Haniyeh to declare such a stand. It's important for Hamas, and even for Fatah, to work together and to show that he won't control Gaza forever," says Atef Adwan, a Hamas member of the Palestinian Legislative Council and a politics scientist at Gazas's Islamic University.

"But I don't believe that this meeting between Fatah and Hamas will take place. Fatah will be under pressure not to have a meeting with Hamas, because it's against the Americans' wishes and the Israelis' wishes as well," he says.

Dr. Adwan says he doesn't see a significant shift of thought in Hamas, and suggested that Hamas's comments didn't represent the movement at large, but only Haniyeh.

"I don't things have changed as dramatically as [Hamas spokesman Hamad] put it to the media," Adwan says. "This point of view does not reflect the present situation of Hamas, and he did not have the green light to express this point of view."

Some Palestinians are skeptical of Hamas's overtures, and say that they don't expect Abbas to run to respond to them so quickly.

"We have conflicting signals from Hamas, actually," says Ali Jarbawi, a political scientist at Birzeit University, near Ramallah in the West Bank.

"Of course they want to be part and parcel of the process, and ruling Gaza is more difficult then they anticipated," Jarbawi says. "But I don't think [Abbas] will [meet with Hamas] before the conference next month. I think he wants to explore the possibility of reaching an agreement with Israel, and he doesn't want to take a chance of Israel pulling out by talking to Hamas right now."

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