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The American government and the European Union are making efforts to include Hamas in a broader diplomatic effort that would include a long-term cease-fire with Israel, reconciliation among Palestinian factions and support for renewed negotiations with Israel on the basis of the Arab peace initiative.

A deal is reportedly being formulated for the transfer of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit to Egypt, under the assumption that this would encourage Israel to agree to a deal with Hamas that would include the release of Palestinian prisoners and opening border crossings. A European diplomatic source told Haaretz yesterday that talks about manifesting the deal were held secretly until late last week, and only four persons were privy to the details of the talks. Israel was not a party to the effort.

Last week Israeli sources denied knowledge of any developments or plans to transfer Shalit to Egypt, a matter that Arab, and particularly Palestinian sources, gave much attention to in their reports. Israel has downplayed reports of a pending breakthrough in the Shalit case, and Israeli officials urged caution and noted that Shalit's release has been undermined in the past by too many public statements.

According to the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Hayat reporting from Damascus, a U.S. official visiting Syria two weeks ago said that "the Hamas leadership has recently made important and interesting statements." The official added that the U.S. is following the Hamas stance and hopes that the group will alter its views and adopt a two-state solution.

Meanwhile, four senior Republican and Democratic figures, including former president Jimmy Carter and former secretary of state James Baker, called on President Barack Obama to initiate a dialogue with Hamas without delay. Speaking during interviews organized by the Foundation for Middle East Peace, Baker said that just like the U.S. found a way to begin dialogue with the PLO, it must do so with Hamas. Baker noted that it is impossible to make peace with people if you are unwilling to talk with them.

Former national security adviser under President George H.W. Bush, Brent Scowcroft, said that if the peace process moves forward, the U.S. will urge Hamas to become part of it in order to avoid isolation.

The elder statesmen expressed their full support for the Obama administration's policies in the Middle East, and agreed that the peace process will not be able to move forward without active American involvement on all levels of negotiations. They also said that an end to Arab-Israeli hostilities is essential for achieving the strategic goals of the U.S. in the Middle East.