- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

TEL AVIV — The offer by Hamas this week to halt attacks and open a dialogue with Israel marks a huge tactical shift by the Islamic militant group ahead of talks by Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Egypt next week, analysts say.

Both the Israeli and Palestinian governments dismissed the possibility of Hamas having any role — even through the most discreet back channels — in talks that begin Tuesday in the Sinai resort of Sharm el Sheik.

The group has been responsible for dozens of suicide attacks on Jewish civilians throughout the almost 4-year-old Palestinian uprising.

The Hamas leader in the West Bank, Sheik Hassan Yousef, told The Washington Times this week that his group was looking for a nonviolent solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and eventual recognition by the Jewish state as a legitimate resistance force.

Moreover, Hamas leaders recently have spoken enthusiastically about participating in parliamentary elections later this year.

Ron Pundak, an Israeli negotiator of the 1993 Oslo Accords, said Hamas faces a dilemma not unlike that of late Yasser Arafat’s Fatah group on the eve of the Oslo conference.

“Hamas is going through an interesting process. I don’t say that they love us and they accept us. But they understand the realities on the ground,” said Mr. Pundak, the director general of the Peres Center for Peace.

Shmuel Bar, a Middle East specialist at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, said the Hamas comments reflect the disarray in the group caused by Israel’s assassination campaign, which has eliminated top military and political leaders in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Bar said the group has been crippled and its leaders forced underground after the assassinations of founders Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abdel Aziz Rantisi last year.

The weakened group is less equipped to confront Mahmoud Abbas, the newly elected president of the Palestinian Authority, than it had been, he said.

“They’ve lost their coherence and their cohesion. They don’t have one leadership,” he said. “The ones who are affiliated with Iran don’t speak in those terms and aren’t even interviewed.”

Mr. Abbas is to meet Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon amid expectations that the two sides will agree on a truce to end the fighting.

Sheik Yousef spoke of making contact with Israel through other countries. Israel refuses to have any contact with Hamas because the group is dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state.

Dore Gold, a former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations, said the Hamas approach is reminiscent of Hezbollah, an Iranian-sponsored militia based in Lebanon, which negotiated prisoner exchanges with Israel through German mediators.

Hamas is trying to “obtain international recognition for its status without altering one iota of its ideology, which calls for the elimination of Israel,” Mr. Gold said.

“The Quartet road map is absolutely clear about how an organization like Hamas must be treated. Their operational capabilities must be dismantled as a first stage before any significant progress in peace negotiations.”

He was referring to the 2003 peace initiative that is backed by the so-called Quartet — the United States, United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

Israel and the Palestinians are attempting to restart the road map, which collapsed amid a wave of suicide attacks by Hamas and other groups.

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