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Call their bluff.

Hamas this week inched one notch further toward some form of accommodation with a reality it cannot bring itself to stomach. Israel should do no less.

In an open letter to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Ahmed Youssef, senior political advisor to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, wrote at the weekend that the Bush administration cannot at once "preach about exporting democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan and ignore the democratic process in Palestine."

"Many people make the mistake of presuming that we have some ideological aversion to making peace," continued Youssef. "Quite the opposite; we have consistently offered dialogue with the U.S. and the E.U. to try and resolve the very issues that you are trying to deal with in Annapolis."

Youssef, you may remember, wrote in a New York Times article a year ago that "Hamas proposes a long-term truce during which the Israeli and Palestinian peoples can try to negotiate a lasting peace."

There is little doubt that Hamas is under mounting and unprecedented pressure. A half year after a civil war with Fatah undermined bedrock assumptions of Palestinian society and its belief in a unified Palestinian people, Gazans are beginning to blame Hamas for an unlivable reality in the Strip.

In fact, there is a war going on within Hamas at present. The armed wing and political hardliners like Mahmoud Zahar have been in ascendancy of late. Pressure for escalation against Israel as mounted, as air strike after airstrike has killed Hamas gunmen and mortar crews in the field.

At the same time, relative moderates like Youssef and ex-Haniyeh spokesman Ghazi Hamad - who has criticized Hamas' violent takeover of Gaza and called for negotiations with Israel - have been pressured and silenced by the hardliners.

All in all, a grim trend. Some Israelis have taken a cruel comfort in the knowledge that the disaster-area state of the Palestinian economy is, to some extent, turning the population against Hamas. It is not, however, turning anyone in Gaza toward a changed opinion of Israel.

If Israel's goal is to eradicate Hamas, it can forget it. Hamas, and the religious-political ideology it spearheads, is a fact in Palestinian society, not some pest that can be eradicated with the application of force, however overwhelming.

Hamas is stricken, but it is not about to crumble. With its strongest founding leaders dead at the hands of Israeli aircraft, the movement is engaged in an internal upheaval the likes of which it has never experienced.

We can affect that process. Until now, our sole effect, after 20 years of determined work, is to fortify Hamas, to play into its hands, to keep it strong and help it get stronger.

It is time for Israel to try something new. Something that requires more courage than long-distance assassination and the obsessive use of the word no.

As we have seen with our once-arch enemy Egypt, and our longtime enemy Syria, if you can kill them, you can talk with them.

In a September opinion piece published in Haaretz, Youssef wrote, "Allowing Hamas to participate in the Palestinian political process will encourage the growth and development of pragmatic ideas and instruments of political action. It will also allow tolerance and respect for pluralism and diversity to strike root in Palestinian political culture.

"The West should ask itself whether it wants the moderation and realism of Hamas or the dogmatism of radical groups that subscribe to the clash of civilizations theory."

To Western ears, to Jewish ears, Youssef's words may sound mendacious, the notion of engaging Hamas in any sense, insane.

But organizations change over time. At this point, the Likud has done more for the cause of Palestinian nationhood than many Palestinian nationalists. At this point, senior officials of the Palestine Liberation Organization are among the most moderate and pragmatic Arab voices pushing for an eventual two-state solution.

There is no reason for Israel, at this point, to trust Hamas. Nor is there any good reason for Hamas to trust Israel. But this is the Middle East, where elaborate bargaining mechanisms have evolved over thousands of years specifically to meet the needs of parties which cannot stomach one another, nor trust them as far as they can throw them.

Hamas is wounded, but it is not going anywhere. At the outset of the intifada, there were many in the radical Palestinian camp who believed that if Israel were wounded, it would simply fold and go away. It is not going anywhere either.

We've tried everything we had to eliminate them. They've done everything they could to return the favor. They've gone so far as to send us human bombs, which, in the end, damaged their own cause. There are those among us who say that only a massive invasion of Gaza can stop the Qassams. Many of these are the same people who yearn for a return to settlements in Gaza.

Either way, they can forget it. The Qassams will continue unless and until we engage Hamas in talks over a cease-fire, the first step in a process that may take generations - mutual recognition of Israel and Palestine.

The Palestinians are coming to realize that they have destroyed their own national movement in a way that Israel could only dream of doing. The voices in Hamas that call for moderation are an indication not that Hamas people are liars, but that they are searching for a way out of a trap they themselves never anticipated. Hamas was not prepared for governance any more than Palestine was ready for independence.

This is the Middle East, where Israelis are taught from a tender age this advice regarding potential adversaries: "Respect them, but suspect them." In the case of Hamas, the time has come to reverse the admonition. Suspicion is the default setting. Respect is what is lacking. Suspect them, yes, but respect them.

It requires courage to explore this opportunity, a supreme act of bravery in Israel - the courage to explore the fearsome possibility of a change of course.

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