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Is dealing with Hamas in the cards?

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, with Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, may soon press Israel to work with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. (Pool Photo  / BPH Images)

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, with Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, may soon press Israel to work with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. (Pool Photo / BPH Images)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The United States dealing with Hamas once was laughable, then illegal. Will it become inevitable?

Hamas continues to dominate the Gaza Strip, even after its forces were decimated in the recent war that the terrorist group launched against Israel.

That has led some lawmakers — even among those in the pro-Israel camp — to contemplate, behind the scenes, a formula under which Hamas would be part of a Palestinian government with which the West could deal.

Under consideration, these lawmakers say off the record, is what role Hamas would have in a Palestinian unity government. If it would defer to the moderates in the Fatah-led West Bank-based Palestinian Authority on foreign policy and security, then it could happen. Were Hamas to have a say in such matters, it would not work.

Other pro-Israel insiders discount the national unity talks between Fatah and Hamas now under way in Cairo as unlikely to produce results, meaning that the prospect of having to deal with Hamas is remote and not worth considering at this stage.

Sallai Meridor, the outgoing Israeli ambassador to Washington, said that even if Hamas were nominally running sanitation, it would be seeking control of the Palestinian Authority — and that was unacceptable.

"They want to take over Palestinian society," he said recently at an Israel Project luncheon. Any other conclusion was "wishful thinking."

The last time Hamas and Fatah tried coexistence, after Hamas won legislative elections in the beginning of 2006, Congress held up funding for the Palestinian Authority. In those days, such aid counted in the mere tens of millions of dollars; with the Obama administration now pledging close to $1 billion, congressional oversight could throw a wrench into the works.

The State Department maintains, as it did under President George W. Bush, that Hamas is unacceptable as long as it does not recognize Israel, end terrorism and adhere to previous peace agreements.

Leading lawmakers already are making clear that those conditions are unassailable.

“The U.S. Congress will find it impossible to work constructively with any Palestinian national unity government that fails unequivocally to recognize Israel, to reject terrorism and all forms of violence, and to accept all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements," Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a statement. "In addition, it should be a government of unquestioned integrity, and fully committed to fiscal responsibility and transparency."

The committee’s top GOP member, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), echoed Berman’s sentiments.

"Diluting the existing preconditions for engagement with Hamas would elevate Hamas’ stature and pollute any negotiations with a hateful ideology which sabotages the search for regional peace and security," she said.

Significantly, though, Rep. Gary Ackerman (D-N.Y.), a leading pro-Israel congressman who chairs the House’s Middle East subcommittee, recently convened a subcommittee on what’s next in Gaza after the recent war — and emphasized the conundrum of how to deal with a split Palestinian polity.

"Hamas is the odd man out," he said. "I don’t know what to do about that. I don’t know how you make peace with half of a want-to-be country. I don’t know how you sign an agreement with an entity whose legal, political and administrative bona fides are all in question."

The three preconditions, laid down by the Quartet — the grouping of the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations that guides the peace process — were honored more in the breach, Ackerman said.

"Start with Hamas, a terrorist organization, an entity beyond the pale," Ackerman said at the Feb. 12 hearing. "They are the enemy and no one can talk to them until they accept the Quartet’s conditions of recognizing Israel, repudiating violence and accepting the PLO’s agreements with Israel.

"Except that for years, Israel has been talking to Hamas through Egypt, and directly to the Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails. And when the IDF was in Gaza in force, with reserves building up outside, the Israelis announced that the destruction of Hamas was absolutely not their goal. Hamas is a deadly, vicious, implacable enemy but somehow, one that had to be left in place."

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