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With Gaza blockade under fire, should the U.S. talk to Hamas?

Photo: AP Photo/Adel Hana

When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas returns to Ramallah over the weekend, he will face a thorny and perhaps intractable question: What to do with Hamas.

In talks with American officials this week, Abbas found himself in the awkward position of having to denounce an Israeli blockade of Gaza designed to weaken Hamas, an Islamist organization and bitter rival of Abbas’s more moderate faction, Fatah. Hamas took control of the Gaza strip after elections there in 2006.

The Israeli blockade was nominally designed to choke off the supply of weapons and ammunition to Hamas, and prevent its more militant wing from launching rockets into Israel. But the blockade has also caused a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, crippling the economy and plunging Gaza’s residents into deep poverty. Those conditions seem to have strengthened Hamas, by wiping out the independent business class and making Gaza’s residents more dependent on government aid.

International officials and humanitarian organizations seem to agree now that the blockade should be lifted, especially after a deadly raid on a Gaza-bound aid convoy left nine activists dead. But the incident has also emboldened Hamas, which controls the territory, and strengthened its position in the Arab world. Turkey, one of the Middle East’s major powers and, until recently, a close ally of Israel, has repositioned itself as Hamas’s partner in the region, and offered to mediate talks between its leaders and the West. Turkish officials have even begun working with Hamas to sue Israel in international court over the raid.

“Hamas is very happy with what happened,” said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist, in a telephone interview from Amman, where he oversees a non-profit media network that serves Jordan and the Palestinian territories. “At the end of the day, most of the meeting between Mahmoud Abbas and President Obama was on Gaza, so they won.”

Kuttab argues that in order to salvage the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, American officials should engage Hamas, labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and most of its allies. Kuttab said Hamas has grown more sophisticated in recent years and that its leaders have signaled a willingness to renounce violence and accept Israel’s existence in return for international legitimacy.

“Hamas has taken some concrete steps on the ground and in their public discourse to at least test the waters,” Kuttab said. “It’s logical for the U.S., who is not directly involved in the conflict — yet one of their citizens was killed, international waters were breached, a NATO ally was besmirched and attacked — to say, ‘What can we do?’”

Kuttab added: “I’m not saying that tomorrow Obama should land in Gaza. But he certainly could send some low-level people to Gaza or Damascus to meet with Hamas.”

In fact, Hamas’s leader, Khaled Meshaal, has claimed in interviews that his organization has already been contacted by envoys of the U.S., though American officials have denied those claims. Meshaal has also sounded a much more diplomatic tone toward the U.S., telling Charlie Rose in a recent interview, “We don’t have a problem whatsoever with the United States or with American interests … America is a great state, a superpower.”

Kuttab has been joined in his call for engagement with Hamas by several prominent former Israeli and international officials, including Jeremy Greenstock, the former British ambassador to the United Nations, and Giora Eiland, a former Israeli general and national security adviser who has been tapped to lead Israel’s investigation into the flotilla raid. Eiland wrote in an Israeli newspaper recently that Israel should not dismiss talks between Hamas and other countries, adding: “The way to press Hamas on various fronts … is to talk to it, not to boycott it.”

The activists aboard the flotilla say their intention was to neither strengthen nor weaken Hamas, but to draw attention to the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. Still, they acknowledge, the incident may have made a dialogue with Hamas inevitable. Edward Peck, a former U.S. diplomat and ambassador to Mauritania who joined the flotilla, served as an international observer of the elections in Gaza in 2006. Recalling a meeting with Meshaal at the time, Peck said the Hamas leader signaled his willingness to accept certain preconditions in return for international recognition of Hamas.

“He has said and they have said, the group, that if the people of Palestine and Gaza accept a proposal to which the leadership agrees, that’s fine,” Peck said in an interview. “All the doors had been open.”

But such rhetoric seems unlikely to entice either Israel or Fatah into direct talks with Hamas. And Hamas has been stubborn in its refusal to offer even modest entrées to Israel in exchange for an open dialogue. Israel has proposed an easing of the blockade in return for Hamas allowing Red Cross access to Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier captured by Palestinian militants during a cross-border raid in 2006. But Hamas has refused. A Hamas official told the Al-Hayat newspaper on Friday that he feared Israel would track the Red Cross’s movements and shell the hideout where Shalit is located.

Aides to Abbas have also balked at any attempt to engage Hamas unless its leaders agree to several preconditions set forth by the international Quartet on the Middle East, which consists of the U.S., the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. Those conditions include agreeing to previous peace accords, renouncing violence and recognizing Israel’s right to exist.

Gaith al-Omari, a former adviser to Abbas, dismissed suggestions that either the U.S. or Fatah should cooperate with Hamas, saying such a decision would only strengthen Hamas’s position in the Arab world and legitimize its use of violence. Al-Omari also doubted Abbas’s willingness to form a unity government with Hamas, even if Hamas agrees to the preconditions set forth by the Quartet.

He added that the U.S. would have no stomach for talks with Hamas, either.

“Very consistently, from Obama himself, from the secretary, we hear it from all levels of staff, that there is no desire for that,” al-Omari said, adding that the most effective way to deal with Hamas would be to marginalize it, by reaching a viable peace agreement. “I would love to see the Hamas campaign against a Palestinian state.”