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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday began her Middle East tour with a visit to the Palestinian Authority. Her visit will focus on greasing the squeaking wheels of preparations for the evacuation of the Gaza Strip. Less than two months before the date set for the evacuation, there still is no coordination between Israeli and Palestinian actions.

Rice has come to ensure that the withdrawal from Gaza will not be carried out under fire and in disorder, so that it will not be the last withdrawal from the territories. Violations of the cease-fire might come from Islamic Jihad, the popular fronts and Fatah's Popular Opposition Committees," but the main question concerns the status of Hamas.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas is supposed to be the sole address and supreme authority for the entire Palestinian community. Politically, Abbas has had to maneuver between conflicting constraints, coming especially from his movement - Fatah - and Hamas, whose placation is essential to preserve the cease-fire and Palestinian achievements on the ground. Hamas is holding a loaded gun to Abbas' head, employing threats in an attempt to increase its share of power.

Under such circumstances, there is great temptation to speak to Hamas without the mediation of Abbas, both to collect information and to gain influence, but this is an illusion. Hamas has long-term goals which include the establishment of a Muslim religious state in all of Palestine, i.e., on the ruins of the State of Israel.

Hamas is in no hurry and it is sensitive to Palestinian public opinion, which is tired of armed confrontation. It therefore is respecting the cease-fire and is prepared for practical arrangements, both ahead of withdrawal and afterward.

However, direct talks with Hamas, as long as it continues to stockpile weapons for the renewal of attacks at a time of its convenience, goes against the shared interests of both Israel and Abbas. The policy that insists on negotiating with governments and not with independent armed organizations is still valid.

Ostensibly, this policy clashes with the process of democratization in the Arab world; if the people chose its representatives, foreign governments have to adjust to the new reality. It is natural that the European Union, seeking to differentiate itself from the American position, would be more open than the U.S. administration to talks with Hamas-affiliated Palestinians who have won municipal elections in the territories.

However, the American position, which is similar to the Israeli one, is justified. It is permissible, perhaps even desirable, to talk with mayors in the territories, whatever their organizational affiliation, because all sides should work to improve the situation of the population, weed out corruption and provide humanitarian and economic hope for the future. But it would be wrong to be dragged into negotiations with them out of an illusion that they are able to moderate Hamas' overall aspirations, which are in any case set by a leadership that is mostly outside the territories.

When Hamas disarms and demonstrates that partnership in taking responsibility for the fate of the Palestinians has moderated it, there will be nothing unacceptable about talking with it. A rush to give it a stamp of approval, with withdrawal from Gaza hanging in the balance, could damage all the moderate parties, who must focus on the disengagement's success.