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  Top Officials Urge Dialogue with Hamas

By Bryan Bender and Farah Stockman

March 15, 2009 "
New York Times" March 14, 2009 --- WASHINGTON - Nine former senior US officials and one current adviser are urging the Obama administration to talk with leaders of Hamas to determine whether the militant group can be persuaded to disarm and join a peaceful Palestinian government, a major departure from current US policy.

The bipartisan group, which includes economic recovery adviser Paul A. Volcker and former national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, made the recommendation in a letter handed to Obama days before he took office, according to Scowcroft.

The group is preparing to meet this weekend to decide when to release a report outlining a proposed US agenda for talks aimed at bringing all Palestinian factions into the Mid east peace process, according to Henry Siegman, the president of the US/Middle East Project, who brought the former officials together and said the White House promised the group an opportunity to make its case in person to Obama.

Talking to Hamas, which the State Department has designated a terrorist organization, would mark a dramatic reversal for the US government. Longstanding US policy has stipulated that before engaging in any talks, Hamas must renounce violence, recognize Israel, and agree to all previous agreements signed by Palestinian negotiators.

"I see no reason not to talk to Hamas," said Scowcroft, who was national security adviser to President George H.W. Bush.

Siegman said the letter, which was handed to Obama by Volcker but has not been made public, said the administration should "at least explore the possibility" that Hamas, which took control of the Palestinian territory of Gaza after elections in 2006, might be willing to transition into a purely political party and join with its rival, Fatah, which holds the Palestinian presidency in the West Bank.

The White House did not respond immediately last night to requests for comment on the letter. Volcker was unavailable for comment.

Both the West Bank and Gaza were occupied by Israel in 1967. Since Israel pulled out of Gaza in 2005, Hamas, which stands for the Islamic Resistance Movement, has launched hundreds of rockets into southern Israeli cities and has taken credit for suicide bombings against Israeli civilians.

Last fall, Israel conducted a military offensive against Hamas in Gaza that resulted in thousands of Palestinian casualties.

Siegman and Scowcroft said the letter urged Obama to formulate a clear American position on how the peace talks should proceed and what the specific goals should be.

"The main gist is that you need to push hard on the Palestinian peace process," Scowcroft said in an interview. "Don't move it to end of your agenda and say you have too much to do. And the US needs to have a position, not just hold their coats while they sit down."

Along with Scowcroft, Volcker, and Brzezinski, who was national security adviser under President Jimmy Carter, signatories included former House International Relations Committee chairman Lee Hamilton, a Democrat; former United Nations ambassador Thomas Pickering from the first Bush administration; former World Bank president James Wolfensohn; former US trade representative in the Ford administration Carla Hills; Theodore Sorensen, former special counsel to President John F. Kennedy; and former Republican senators Chuck Hagel and Nancy Kassebaum Baker.

Meanwhile, other leading foreign policy officials in the United States and in Europe have been calling for deeper international engagement with Hamas.

Michael Ancram, a Conservative Party member of the British Parliament, who has held several meetings with Hamas leaders over the past two years, is urging the British government to engage in "exploratory dialogue" with Hamas.

"There is a chance of a process," Ancram said in an interview. "Either they deliver, in which you move forward, or they don't deliver, in which case nothing is lost."

But many other Middle East specialists believe that meeting with Hamas would set a bad precedent of negotiating with terrorists and could also undermine more moderate Palestinian leaders, including Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Fatah party.

Chuck Freilich, Israel's former deputy national security adviser, said in a recent interview that talks with Hamas would be a waste of time. "Maybe someday Hamas would moderate, but until then . . . I don't think there is much to talk about," he said. "I think they [the Obama administration] are going to find very quickly that the reason the Bush administration didn't do anything for seven years was there wasn't anything to do."

The recommendations in the letter will be laid out in more detail in the coming days, Siegman said, adding that the letter itself will not be released until the signatories have a chance to meet with the president.

In the early days of his presidency, Obama has widened the scope of voices advising him on how to approach the Israel-Palestinian peace process, including reaching out to Arab-American groups.

He has also named a special envoy, former senator George Mitchell of Maine, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and National Security Adviser James L. Jones - who served as special envoy to the Mideast in the second Bush administration - are all playing primary roles.

Who will have Obama's ear among the many Middle East specialists remains a burning question.

"Somebody is going to coordinate the emissaries and coordinators," Scowcroft said.

Copyright 2009 The New York Times Company
 

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