Monday, January 23, 2006

Hamas sees indirect talks with Israel as a possibility


A Hamas leader raised the possibility on Monday of indirect negotiations with Israel, softening the Islamic militant group's stance ahead of this week's Palestinian election.

The shift by Mahmoud al-Zahar came on the final frenetic day of official campaigning before Wednesday's parliamentary vote, which could catapult the movement into its first role in Palestinian government.

"Negotiations are a means. If Israel has anything to offer on the issues of halting attacks, withdrawal, releasing prisoners ... then one thousand means can be found," Zahar told reporters in Gaza.

As an example, he cited contacts the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah held with Israel, via German mediators, for the release of Lebanese held in Israeli jails. Hamas has long rejected peace talks.

"Negotiation is not a taboo," Zahar said. "But the political crime is when we sit with the Israelis and then come out with a wide smile to tell the Palestinian people that there is progress, when in fact, there is not."

Israel and the United States have long refused any dialogue with Hamas. The group has carried out nearly 60 suicide bombings since the start of a Palestinian uprising in 2000 and its charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state.

A senior Israeli official, commenting on Zahar's remarks, said: "If they stop terrorism and if they rescind their covenant ... we will consider it (negotiations). Before that, it is worthless to talk about it."

In London, British Prime Minister Tony Blair told a monthly news conference it would be difficult for the West to negotiate or talk with Hamas "unless there's a very clear renunciation of terrorism".

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European Union's external relations commissioner, said in Brussels the EU would not rule out working with a Palestinian government that included Hamas, provided it sought "peace by peaceful means" with Israel.

Asked if her position could be seen as giving Hamas de facto recognition, Ferrero-Waldner replied: "We are not there at all.

"Hamas is on the terrorist list ... It is very important not to interfere with the elections, and also to uphold a series of principles. I don't think it is about parties, it's about principles," she told Reuters.

In an earlier move apparently aimed at improving its international image, Hamas omitted from its election manifesto its long-standing call to destroy Israel.

Some Israeli officials cautioned that an election victory for Hamas could herald an end to Middle East peacemaking.

A big win for Hamas could also prompt Washington to scale back contacts with the Palestinian Authority and possibly freeze direct financial assistance, U.S. diplomatic sources said.

Most opinion polls show Hamas trailing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement in Wednesday's election, but the margin has narrowed to a few percentage points.
Hamas has gained popularity among Palestinians not only for its attacks on Israelis during the uprising but also for its charity network and its corruption-free image.

Fatah has been weakened since Arafat's death in 2004 by a struggle between an "old guard" accused of graft and younger leaders and gunmen seeking greater power.

In preparation for the ballot, Israeli forces were instructed to permit free passage of Palestinian election vehicles through Israeli military checkpoints in the West Bank.

The army planned to steer clear of Palestinian towns and avoid military raids "except in cases of ticking bombs" or an intelligence tip of an imminent attack, a military source said.