Gaza truce and Obama fuel talk of talking to Hamas
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - War ends in the Gaza Strip, a new U.S. president is sworn in, and suddenly this week there is new talk about talks between sworn enemies Israel and Hamas.
But talk may be as far as it goes. Neither the contenders in Israel's election nor Barack Obama seem to share a view that, with the Islamists blooded but unbowed in Gaza where people now require massive aid, Israel and its allies should end a boycott of Hamas in both Palestinians' interests and their own.
Seizing on signs that Europe, disturbed by killing and poverty in Gaza and emboldened by change in Washington, might reconsider its ban on contact with the Palestinian Islamists, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal claimed "victory" and said on Wednesday: "I tell European nations ... it is time for you to deal with Hamas."
It is a sentiment that is finding some echo elsewhere, even if a dramatic front-page appeal by leading Israeli writer David Grossman in Haaretz newspaper remains a marginal view in Israel:
"Instead of ignoring Hamas ... we would do better to take advantage of the new reality that has been created by beginning a dialogue with them immediately," he wrote in Tuesday's piece.
Only dialogue could avert mutual destruction, Grossman said.
Hamas rejects talks that would imply recognition of Israel, though does not rule out all contact. Unlike other Palestinian groups, it has not accepted Israel and wants all its territory, but Hamas leaders have also offered Israel a "long-term truce."
At a meeting on Wednesday with Israeli officials, EU foreign ministers were asked if they should now speak directly to Hamas. Finland's Alexander Stubb said cautiously: "It is time to start slowly reflecting how we get all parties round the table."
"No comprehensive solution can be taken without Hamas."
"The option of negotiating with Hamas has never been really taken into consideration," French expert Olivier Roy wrote in an opinion piece in Wednesday's Saudi Gazette, looking at Obama's options in the region. "It is time to consider that option."
Hamas won a parliamentary election in 2006 but was shunned for espousing ambitions to destroy Israel. Its seizure of Gaza from the Western-backed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in 2007 reinforced its pariah status, paralysed his peacemaking with Israel and locked 1.5 million Gazans behind a blockade.
Roy contested views of Hamas as an implacable enemy bent on an Islamist takeover of the Jewish state. Unlike, say, al Qaeda, Roy said, Hamas's aims were primarily national, and negotiable.
Obama, who offered "a new way forward" with the Muslim world at his inauguration, has prompted speculation he may be readier than his predecessor to talk to enemies. But he has given little indication of change in the policy towards the Palestinians.
Within the Quartet of mediators, with the European Union, United Nations and Russia, Washington under Obama's predecessor George W. Bush ensured a boycott of Hamas as "terrorists" and set three conditions for that to change: give up violence, recognise Israel and accept existing, interim peace accords.
Last week, new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated those conditions and told senators Obama "believes he has the right to claim the opportunity to speak with anybody at any time." But he also knew "preliminary work" must be done.
Israel can count on support in the U.S. Congress to inhibit any major change in policy on Hamas. White House comments on Wednesday indicated little change for now -- support for Israel and, notably, for Abbas, whose authority is challenged by Hamas.
Israel has little appetite for embracing Hamas, seen there as a pawn of Iran and a promoter of dozens of suicide bombings.
Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, leading the ruling party into a February 10 election, rules out talks. She trails her right-wing opponent Benjamin Netanyahu. "Ultimately, Hamas must be toppled because it is a threat to Israel," Netanyahu adviser Ron Dermer told Reuters. He did not see any new pressure to talk to Hamas.
The scale of suffering in Gaza has, however, pointed up a dilemma for those who want to help but also shun the Islamists.
"The Europeans and other donors, now have a problem: Are you going to give money that is going to benefit Hamas? Or are you going to refuse to assist the population?" said Mouin Rabbani, a fellow of the Beirut-based Institute for Palestine Studies.
"Are you going to say 'Let them eat cake?'"
France has hinted at change. It said this week that Hamas abandoning violence is the main condition for talks. Recognising Israel and accepting interim accords between Abbas's Palestinian Authority and the Jewish state seem to count for less to Paris.
European officials have also suggested a new Palestinian unity government, involving Hamas and Abbas's Fatah group, might be treated less harshly than one which was crippled by embargoes in 2007, even if Hamas did not meet all their pre-conditions.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, in Gaza this week, urged Palestinian unity as the way forward, without mentioning Hamas's policies. However, there is little sign of unity at the moment.
Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri rejected Ban's suggestion that aid to Gaza should depend on reconciliation with Fatah, but he added: "We are ready for dialogue with France or any other Western country -- only without any preconditions."
Retired French diplomat Yves Aubin de la Messuziere, who met Hamas leaders twice in Gaza last year, told Le Monde: "If Obama truly wants to be the American president who resolved this conflict, there will have to be a dialogue with Hamas."
But U.S. analyst David Frum said talking to violent men was "an invitation to more violence." He wrote: "Advocates of talks with terrorists often present themselves as pragmatists. Not so. They are guided by unstated biases and pure wishful thinking."
(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Editing by Peter Millership)
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