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Hamas' Political Clout Grows, Challenges Israel

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

And I'm Melissa Block. There was a hint of a diplomatic opening today between Israel and the Palestinians. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas welcomed an offer from Israeli's acting Prime Minister, Ehud Olmert, to hold new peace talks. Olmert said he hoped to return to the table after Israel holds elections in March, but Olmert said the offer was contingent on Palestinian's disarming military groups, including Hamas.

NORRIS: And that presents a problem. For now Hamas leaders say they have no intention of laying down their arms and they're focused on upcoming elections of their own. Hamas is expected to win at least a third of the seats in the Palestinian Parliament in a vote next week. We'll talk with a Palestinian pollster in a few minutes. First, NPR's Linda Gradstein reports on the challenge currently facing Israel.

LINDA GRADSTEIN: Just days before the Palestinian elections, official Israel is sticking to a clear line about Hamas, which has been behind dozens of suicide bombings over the past five years. In a news conference Israel's President Moshe Katsav said Israel can never talk to Hamas.

MOSHE KATSAVE: (Through Translator) There is no basis to negotiate with them. Hamas cannot be a partner as long as it does not recognize our right to exist.

GRADSTEIN: But behind the scenes there is a sharp debate within Israel about whether Hamas can ever be weaned away from the pledge enshrined in its covenant to destroy Israel. Israeli military officials say Hamas has observed the eleventh month old cease-fire far more strictly than other Palestinian factions.

Over the past six months the Islamist group has made some impressive political gains, winning control of dozens of town councils in the West Bank in Gaza in municipal elections. Retired Israeli General Shalom Harari, a Palestinian expert at a think tank outside Tel Aviv, says this has forced Israel to deal with Hamas officials.

SHALOM HARARI: Already now we talk with low level officials of whom these policies that are met by Hamas's elected people. The debate now inside the system is, ok should we talk also to the top of the pyramids in the municipalities or only to the low level and medium level.

GRADSTEIN: Next week's Palestinian election will mark the first time that Hamas has fielded candidates for Parliament. In its campaign Hamas is focused on internal issues, presenting itself as an alternative to the corruption-ridden Fatah movement, which controls the Palestinian authority. Hamas posters in the West Bank have no pictures of guns and the group's official platform for the campaign does not mention armed struggle.

David Kimche (ph), a former Deputy Director of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency, says there are tensions within Hamas, between the outside leadership based in Damascus, which tends to be more extreme, and local leaders in the West Bank and Gaza, who are more interested in internal Palestinian issues.

DAVID KIMCHE: There is, however, a, I would say, increasingly strong element within Hamas, which is saying we Hamas have to take over the government on the Palestinian side and we, our biggest problem at the moment is the secularism among the Palestinians and not necessarily the Israelis.

GRADSTEIN: Kimche says if the local leadership wins the struggle for control of the movement it is conceivable that Israel could negotiate with the Palestinian government that includes Hamas. General Harari, who spent decades as an advisor on Palestinian affairs for the Israeli army, says the current debate reminds him of the 1970s, when Fatah and other factions within the Palestine Liberation Organization took responsibility for dozens of terrorist attacks.

Israeli officials said then they would never negotiate with the PLO. But in 1993, Israel signed the Oslo Interim Peace Accords with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Harari says Hamas may be more open to interim agreements with Israel than a final peace deal, but he says having Hamas as a party to an agreement is far better than leaving it outside the negotiations.

HARARI: With a united government of Hamas and Fatah we, at least if we sign on something you know that you signed on something that's worth it.

GRADSTEIN: Whatever Israeli officials may want to see, Hamas has become a major player in Palestinian politics. And most Israeli analysts say that if Israel wants a peace deal it will eventually have to negotiate with Hamas.

Linda Gradstein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Gradstein
Linda Gradstein has been the Israel correspondent for NPR since 1990. She is a member of the team that received the Overseas Press Club award for her coverage of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the team that received Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism for her coverage of the Gulf War. Linda spent 1998-9 as a Knight Journalist Fellow at Stanford University.
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