Donald Macintyre: Hamas may yet be brought in from the cold

History suggests opportunities are more often squandered than seized in this region
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The Independent Online

The prediction yesterday by Hamas in Gaza that the new Palestinian Prime Minister will be a member of the faction is the first stage of what may yet be a protracted process in forming a new Palestinian cabinet. All the interested parties have a great deal to talk about, internally and internationally, before Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, completes the process of asking Hamas to form a government.

The international shock at Hamas's victory was genuine. Mr Abbas had persuaded Washington, in particular, to accept a two-pronged strategy. By bringing Hamas into the political process, he would find it easier to convert it from a path of armed militancy, which it had anyway - if temporarily - eschewed for most of the past year. Secondly, by defeating it, decisively but not overwhelmingly, he would gain the legitimacy he needed to entrench that conversion.

Hamas's victory left the international community without a script. The US and Europe found that a proscribed organisation had been freely and unimpeachably elected. Israel was confronted with the - for many - understandably abhorrent prospect that Palestinian politics was now to be dominated by an organisation which had killed more than 400 of its civilians in suicide bombings over the last five years.

Denial, however, was hardly an option. Nor was it necessarily the case that the first of Abbas's two goals was negated by his failure to achieve the second. There are some tentative signs that even the US is beginning to realise this. The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, told a closed meeting of the international Quartet on 30 January that, while the US would not talk to Hamas, it recognised that other parties were willing to do so. Which, in turn, suggests that Vladimir Putin's abrupt decision to invite Hamas leaders for talks does not put him beyond the international pale in the way that outraged Israeli politicians have suggested it does.

The hurdles set for Hamas by the Quartet are very high - renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel. Yet, while Hamas leaders have repeatedly said that they will neither abrogate the right to "armed resistance" nor - ever - recognise Israel, its more pragmatic spokesmen have begun to imply there could be something to negotiate about. If Israel were to agree to return to end the occupation and return to pre-1967 borders, Hamas suggests it would sanction a long-term - perhaps very long-term - truce. As its leaders tour the Arab world, it is likely to be urged to accept the Saudi initiative which promised recognition of Israel in return for such an outcome.

But there is also a curious symbiosis between the position of Likud and that of Hamas. As some Likud ministers talk of further withdrawals from the West Bank without abandoning their theoretical belief that the whole land is Greater Israel, so might not Hamas contemplate an "interim" solution without abandoning their (perhaps also increasingly theoretical) belief in a Palestine stretching from the Jordan to the Mediterranean?

The Middle East is in what Alvaro de Soto, the UN's peace envoy, describes as "one of those malleable moments in which nothing is predetermined". Comparing the present period to that before the Madrid summit 15 years ago, when Yasser Arafat and the PLO were being coaxed "to utter the right words about recognition", Mr De Soto added: "I don't think Hamas has fully made up its mind and I do think the international community can help to shape it to some extent."

The danger is, that with an Israeli election six weeks way in which Benjamin Netanyahu is doing everything to play the Hamas card from the right, Israeli politicians in the centre will take entrenched positions that drive Hamas into a corner by persuading the international community to join them in ostracising the Palestinian Authority when Hamas takes up - at least some - cabinet posts.

There are signs that both Hamas and much of the Israeli public understand, better than some Israeli politicians, the true message of the Palestinian elections. Which was not that the Palestinian electorate was seeking a return to armed conflict or the abandonment of a two-state solution, but rather that it was fed up with Fatah's failure to improve the daily lives of Palestinians or to have anything to show for its commitment to a peace process.

The fact that, Mahmoud Abbas, someone unquestionably committed to a just and lasting peace, not only remains in post but appears to believe that a viable Palestinian Authority can be created with Hamas, suggests that there may be opportunities here as well as threats. Sadly, the history of this region suggests opportunities are more often squandered than seized.