Mr. Levin: I am less convinced than you are that Hamas is "absolutely committed" to Israel's destruction. On several occasions they have been faced with this issue -- and reminded that their charter calls explicitly for Israel's destruction -- and each time they have given the same answer: the charter, they say, can be amended. "It is not the Koran." The Palestine Liberation Organization also once called for Israel's destruction and they moderated their position over time, after making it clear that they would never do so. It is useful to use our discretion in parsing out what Hamas or any political movement says for public consumption and what it says in private.
I had a meeting with Yitzhak Rabin, former Prime Minister of Israel, in 1993, in which I asked him whether he would ever negotiate with Yasser Arafat, then president of the Palestinian National Authority. His answer was: "Never, never, never, never, never, never, never" -- seven "nevers." And when Yitzhak Rabin told me that he would "never" negotiate with Yasser Arafat he was, in fact, negotiating with Yasser Arafat -- in Stockholm. I mention this to point out that what political leaders are liable to tell reporters and the public is one thing, and what they are likely to do for their country is another thing. And Mr. Rabin was a very practical man and patriot. He negotiated with Arafat not because he liked Mr. Arafat or was a "peacenik" (a word he disparagingly used in an interview with me after the signing of the Oslo Accords), but because he thought it in the interests of his country.
Finally, we think of Hamas as an Islamist organization and while that is nominally true, I have found that they are much more politically minded than we might believe. They have not imposed Sharia law (religious law) in Gaza and have no social agenda that I can discern. In the parts of the West Bank where Hamas mayors have been elected they have not imposed any kind of Islamist requirements. So what is their goal? An Islamic state? Or political power?
I do not think I am optimistic. That would be going too far. I think that any kind of opening with Hamas must come after great thought and reflection. We must weigh what we say with them, and we must weigh what they say to us. It may be that, after an initial meeting, we have nothing to talk about. I think there is a lot to talk about. But how will we know that if we don't talk?