- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 5, 2004

TEL AVIV — Palestinian officials will meet in the Syrian capital this week with leaders of Hamas to test signs that the Islamic militant organization is ready to adopt a more pragmatic line on a cease-fire with other Palestinians and statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mahmoud Abbas, candidate for president of the Palestinian Authority, and Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia leave today for Damascus, where they are likely to hear demands from Hamas leader Khaled Mashal for a power-sharing arrangement and for a commitment to hold new elections to the Palestinian parliament.

Hamas is pressing harder than ever to become part of the Palestinian political establishment after the Nov. 11 death of Yasser Arafat. Recent signs of moderation have included a suggestion from Sheik Hassan Yousef, Hamas’ leader in the West Bank, for a long-term truce with Israel. Observers say the offer was designed to appeal to the Palestinian mainstream.

Ziyad Abu Amr, a Palestinian legislator and expert on Hamas, said Sheik Yousef was not the first to make such comments, but acknowledged that it was unusual for a Hamas leader to repeatedly talk about the possibility of coexistence with Israel, as Sheik Yousef did in several press interviews last week.

“There’s a new political reality, and I don’t think they are going to stick to their old positions,” Mr. Abu Amr said. But that doesn’t mean Hamas is ready to give up its long-term goal of recovering all of historical Palestine.

“Hamas believes the historical claims still stand, but at this point in the political reality they have to adopt an interim solution,” he said.

There are signs that the Hamas leadership is divided on whether to compromise. Hamas leader Mahmoud Al-Zahar said yesterday that the organization is not discussing a truce.

“Our strategy is to liberate all Palestinian soil,” Reuters news agency quoted him as saying.

The conflicting messages reflect a balancing act for Hamas. Although the organization seeks confirmation of its rising power in future legislative and municipal elections, it still is not ready to vie for control of the Palestinian government.

Ghazi Hamad, who edits a Hamas-affiliated newspaper, said running in elections would give the organization legitimacy as a political group. On the other hand, Hamas isn’t about to assume the diplomatic commitments of the Palestinian Authority, particularly the Oslo peace accords.

“All the time Hamas has been against being a part of the Authority and against being part of political life. Now they are talking about that, we’re willing to be part of a united leadership,” Mr. Hamad said. “This is a good step inside of Hamas to be more realistic and more pragmatic.”

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