It's Up to Hamas

Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to talk to Hamas is like a key to a lock for the Americans, a blessing and not a curse.

"The corrupt rule of Yasser Arafat" - who said this about the previous Palestinian leader and also spoke admiringly of the Palestinians' "great efforts to essentially dig out of the hole that they found themselves in" because of Arafat? Sean McCormack, United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's spokesman, he and no other, in his explanation last week of the Hamas victory in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council.

In terms that sounded like commentary on an election surprise in Chicago, McCormack said that the Palestinian public supported the platform of those who promised to govern it well, with transparency and without corruption.

This is the positive Hamas, and its negative is the Hamas that is opposed to peace, thus contradicting the wishes of the Palestinian public. Two impulses racing around in the same soul: One cleans and the other dirties, one bleaches out the governmental filth and the other stains the whiteness with pools of blood. If they help the good impulse overcome the evil impulse, salvation will come to Palestinian democracy. This is the position of the soft wing of the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush: the State Department and the intelligence community. In the annual threat assessment he delivered to Congress two weeks ago, the chief of the intelligence community, Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, said that Abbas, Israel and "the rest of the world," i.e. also Bush, have not yet decided how to deal with a "majority party in the Palestinian Legislative Council that conducts and supports terrorism and refuses to recognize or negotiate with Israel."

Possibly, Negroponte conjectured, the Hamas voters voted against the Fatah government more than in favor of the Hamas platform of rejecting Israel, and "Hamas now must contend with Palestinian public opinion that over the years has supported the two-state solution."

Hence the recipe is clear, a recipe that seems to have been written like a dietician's advice to increase good cholesterol and cut down bad cholesterol. It is necessary to talk to Hamas, in order to show it the light and teach it to recognize the needs of Palestinian society, which are better understood in Washington than in Gaza, and it doesn't matter that the American measures of "Palestinian public opinion" rely mainly on those very same survey institutes that failed in their predictions of the outcome of the vote.

However, the Americans have tied their own hands with their definition of Hamas as a terror organization with which contact is prohibited. In the past they have not lacked for excuses to ignore such self-prohibitions, on the grounds of need, and especially to save civilian lives from abductions and terror attacks - from the contacts made by Robert Ames of the CIA with the commander of Black September, Ali Hassan Salameh, concerning security in Beirut, to the Iran-Contras affair.

Israel, too, suspends its ban on contacts with its enemies in favor of security arrangements, from the cease-fire with the Palestine Liberation Organization on the Lebanese border in 1981, to the lull with Hamas in the territories this past year.

In the context of Bush's war on terror and the trial of Hamas supporters in Florida, direct American contact with Hamas is still possible, but more sensitive and will be used against the administration when it is exposed in Congress and in the press. Russian President Vladimir Putin's offer to talk to Hamas is therefore like a key to a lock for the Americans, a blessing and not a curse.

The initiative, therefore, is in the hands of Hamas. It is within its power to harass the miserable government of Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and cause it a series of defeats, if only Ismail Haniya and Khaled Mashal, instead of rejecting entirely the Israeli-American-Quartet conditions, chose to ask for time to consider, demand clarifications and offer counter-conditions. Putin and Rice will be able to call this "transmission of messages" but it will in effect be negotiations, with agents' fees to the Russians, a result of the American-Israeli decision to allow Hamas to participate in the elections and win them.