Yitzhak Benhorin
April 2, 2010 - 12:00am

Former US government officials, some of whom are in contact with the current administration, have met in the past months with Hamas leaders, one of the officials who participated in the talks confirmed in a conversation with Ynet on Friday.

The official, Robert Malley, was a senior official in President Bill Clinton's administration. Malley added that Obama's administration is aware of the meetings and even hinted that they are being updated regarding their content. The administration itself did not deny that details of the meetings reaches Washington, but emphasized that it did not sanction the meetings.

An initial report of the meetings appeared Thursday in the Wall Street Journal. Malley, who advised US President Barack Obama during his presidential campaign and maintains close ties with administration officials, confirmed to Ynet that he and retired US ambassador Thomas Pickering, together with senior European officials, met in Zurich last summer with senior Hamas officials, headed by Mahmoud a-Zahar and Osama Hamdan.

Meetings apparently were also held in other European cities as well as in the Middle East. Malley and Pickering both acted under the auspices of a Brussels-based research institute.

The newspaper added that the meetings have raised hopes among the officials that their positions are being heard in Washington. On the other hand, the administration emphasized that it does not sanction the talks and remains firm in its position that Hamas must recognize Israel and previous agreements and renounce violence and terrorism.

Despite this, the talks are seen on all sides as a sign that the Obama administration has softened the US stance towards Hamas, which is still designated a terrorist organization under US law.

'There were meetings under Bush, too'

According to the report in the newspaper, the American officials involved in the meetings are senior officials from the diplomatic corps. Pickering is one of the most highly esteemed US diplomats. Included in his diplomatic missions were postings as ambassador to Israel, Jordan, and the UN. During the Clinton administration, he served as Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs.

Malley, too, has quite a bit of experience under his belt. During his post as Special Assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli Affairs, Malley participated in talks between Israel, the Palestinians, and Syria in the 90s and was the only American alongside Clinton in talks with Assad Sr. in Geneva in a last-ditch attempt to salvage peace talks between Israel and Syria.

Malley currently serves as Program Director for Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group in Washington. Pickering also sits as a co-chair on the ICG board.

Malley told Ynet that the two work together in the international research institute and speak with officials throughout the world, and, as such, also meet with Hamas officials. He said that they spoke with Hamas regarding the situation in the Gaza Strip.

According to Malley, the group was clear with Hamas that they were not trying to deliver any messages and had no connection with the US government. As such, he said, the meetings do not constitute any form of indirect negotiations, and the officials do not pass messages between Hamas and the US government. He said such meetings were also held under the Bush administration.

In response to the question whether the Obama administration is aware of the meetings or briefed on them after, he said that the group communicates to the government that a meeting was held and then passes on its impressions should anyone in the government express interest in hearing about what went on. He reiterated that he acted similarly with the Bush administration, and noted that there is no change in the US policy toward Hamas.

Malley said he does not see any change within the Hamas ranks, but said that in his view, dialogue must always be pursued in order to understand what one is facing.

A Hamas official told the Wall Street Journal that his organization is satisfied with the talks, saying it believes Hamas' message is reaching its target and it knows it is meeting with people with ties to the White House.

A White House official responded to the newspaper's question whether the White House is receives updates on the meetings, saying it would be negligent not to listen, especially if the meetings' participants have such extensive experience and "know what they are talking about."

However, it was said in response that the official policy of the administration has not changed and dialogue with Hamas will take place only after it recognizes Israel and past agreements made with it and renounces terrorism.


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