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Hamas: The unlikely peacemaker Add to ...

pmartin@globeandmail.com

Suddenly, it's all about Hamas.

Just 10 months after its rocket fire on Israel triggered a devastating attack on Gaza, the Islamic Resistance Movement is looked to as the source of hope for the peace process and Palestinian democracy.

Some 57 per cent of Israelis support the idea of talking with Hamas, according to a reputable survey splashed across the front page of Haaretz's big Friday edition. The poll was taken in the wake of a statement Sunday by former defence minister Shaul Mofaz, who is No. 2 on the Kadima Party list led by Tzipi Livni.

Mr. Mofaz, who had an illustrious military career before being appointed defence minister by Ariel Sharon, announced he was advocating a new policy to resolve the deadlocked peace process.

In what some commentators here say is a move calculated to win him the leadership of his party, Mr. Mofaz, 61, called for the immediate creation of a Palestinian state on 60 per cent of the West Bank, negotiations on the future of settlements and on the rest of the territories, and said he supports negotiations with Hamas provided it renounces violence and recognizes Israel.

"If Hamas would be elected and would want to negotiate and accept the Quartet's conditions, from that moment, it is no longer Hamas," said Mr. Mofaz, who was chief of the Israel Defence Forces during the second Palestinian intifada. "Responsible leadership in Israel would sit with those who changed their agenda."

Yesterday's poll results indicate a lot of the country would be behind him. Fully 72 per cent of Kadima supporters said they favoured talks with Hamas, and even a remarkable 53 per cent of Likud supporters said they agreed.

Haaretz survey analyst Yossi Verter noted: "The attitude of Israelis to Hamas, a terrorist organization that still holds [captured Israeli soldier]Gilad Shalit, is quite pragmatic."

"It seems that Mofaz knew that he was marching on solid political ground when he included this radical article in his plan," Mr. Verter wrote.

"I'd say it's consistent with a long-term trend in this country," said Mark Heller, principal research associate of the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. "The Israeli public prefers pro-peace policies, but doesn't trust left-wing parties to carry them out."

Indeed, the same survey that found majority support for negotiating with Hamas, also saw support crater for Labour and other parties of the left.

For their part, Hamas leaders said this week the movement would sign at the end of this month a reconciliation agreement with its political nemesis Fatah, the movement led by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas. Since June of 2007, when Hamas wrested military control of the Gaza Strip from the Palestinian Authority in several days of bloody fighting, Hamas has governed Gaza, while the PA has controlled the West Bank.

The reconciliation agreement is the product of lengthy negotiations brokered by Egypt. It calls for Hamas to become a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, something it has long demanded, and for elections to be held throughout the Palestinian territories in June, to see who would govern both the West Bank and Gaza.

The move to reconcile follows an announcement a week ago by Mr. Abbas that he would not seek re-election and would step down as president as the election then slated for January.

"Actually, with the signing of the national reconciliation papers, we expect Abu Mazen to stay until the next election [in June]" said senior Hamas official Ahmed Yousef, referring to Mr. Abbas by his popular nickname.

"Why not," said Mr. Yousef, in a wide-ranging interview in his Gaza deputy foreign minister office. "Abu Mazen has a problem not with Hamas but with the Americans who deceived him all these years, promising him something and they never fulfilled their promises."

To some, it may seem odd that Hamas would move to reconcile with Fatah, just as its great rival is at a particularly low point.

But it is clear from Mr. Yousef's remarks - as well as from those of Aziz Dwaik, the political leader of Hamas in the West Bank and speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council - that Hamas is serious about going into an election.

Mr. Dwaik went so far as to remind people this week that should Mr. Abbas step down as president before an election, then the PA constitution calls for Mr. Dwaik, as speaker, to become acting president and to call an election within 60 days.

Mr. Yousef acknowledged the very real possibility that Hamas will not win the June election but would still hope to be in a national unity government. Hamas won the last election in January of 2006, but Israel and many Western countries, including Canada and the United States, refused to deal with it.

Mr. Yousef said that after the election in June "we would like the world community to engage with the [new]government, whether Hamas is in it or not."

That's something a lot of Israelis will be worried about.

A Knesset member close to Ms. Livni, the Kadima Leader, bemoaned the statement Mr. Mofaz made about Hamas this week, especially coming at this time.

"It legitimizes Hamas ahead of the Palestinian election and weakens Abu Mazen and the moderates," the member said. "I am sure Mofaz will star in Hamas's political campaign."

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