Hamas gets visit from Pickering


The Washington Post’s Howard Schneider and Glenn Kessler write today of a meeting between former top U.S. diplomat Thomas Pickering and two senior officials of Hamas:

To Hamas officials Bassem Naim and Mahmoud al-Zahar, a recent meeting in Switzerland with a former senior U.S. diplomat represented an opening in relations with the Obama administration, and a path to easing the Islamist group’s isolation.

"I hope it will be the beginning of addressing some of the mistakes of the last three years," Naim said of his talks with Thomas R. Pickering, a former undersecretary of state and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. "This was a first meeting to investigate the positions in general terms of both parties without any commitment on any side."

U.S. officials say they see the previously undisclosed June meeting between Pickering and the two senior Hamas officials differently. They said Pickering had not been asked to approach Hamas and had no official standing; U.S. officials learned of the meeting only afterward. Policy toward the Islamist group, they said, remains what it was under President George W. Bush: that Hamas is a terrorist organization with which the United States will not even sanction a meeting.

The article notes that the meeting took place shortly before Hamas leader Khaled Meshal gave a speech that was seen as an attempt to reach out to President Obama:

Still, the Pickering meeting took place in the context of Obama administration efforts to reach out to forces in the Middle East that were shunned under Bush. It was held in between President Obama’s June 4 speech in Cairo, in which he acknowledged popular support for Hamas among Palestinians, and a June 25 speech by Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, in which Meshal said the armed movement was ready to deal with the international community in order to reach an agreement with Israel. Pickering, co-chair of the nonprofit International Crisis Group, would not comment….

Meshal’s speech, delivered from Damascus, the Syrian capital, was considered an overture to Obama. "The purpose of the speech was to convince the West that Hamas is a partner for dialogue," retired Israeli Brig. Gen. Shlomo Brom, director of the Israeli-Palestinian Relations Program at Tel Aviv University, wrote in a recent paper. "The speech will make it easier for elements in Western Europe and within Obama’s administration that support dialogue with Hamas to advance their position."

But U.S. and Israeli officials say they see little substantive change in Meshal’s position. Meshal and other Hamas officials have said that hostilities might end for a decade or more through an extended truce, but that they are not interested in reconciling with Israel over the long term.

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