Janine Zacharia
The Washington Post
June 25, 2010 - 12:00am

Israel's president and elder statesman, Shimon Peres, urged the United States and other world powers this week to engage with Hamas in order to persuade the Islamist group to renounce violence and prepare for peace with Israel.

Peres, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his role in negotiating the 1993 land-for-peace Oslo accord between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the international community could do with Hamas what European leaders did when they persuaded Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to embrace negotiations. "Instead of pushing me, they changed Arafat," Peres, 86, said in an interview. "I'm saying the same thing with Hamas. Don't press upon us. They are pressing the [wrong] people foolishly."

Israel has sought to isolate Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and has urged allies to do the same. But how to deal with Hamas as a political reality has largely eluded the international community since the Islamist group chose to participate in Palestinian elections, and won, in 2006. A year later, Hamas fought a bloody battle with rival Fatah and seized exclusive control of Gaza. Since then, Hamas leaders have expressed some openness to a two-state solution while maintaining the group's charter, which calls for the destruction of Israel.

U.S. diplomats are prohibited under international law from talking directly to Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the United States and others. Instead, the United States engages with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and his government, based in the West Bank. Israel in the past has, through intermediaries, arranged cease-fires with Hamas and tried to negotiate the release of soldier Gilad Shalit, held by Hamas for four years.

Peres, whose position is largely ceremonial, has suggested that responsibility for engaging with Hamas to try to stop it from amassing rockets should fall to the Quartet -- the Middle East peacemaking body made up of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.

The Quartet has repeatedly urged Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist, accept existing Middle East peace accords and commit to nonviolence. Hamas officials say they have clamped down on rocket attacks but retain the right to arm themselves.

Israel's blockade of Gaza, designed to prevent Hamas from arming and weaken its grip on power, came under sharp criticism after the May 31 Israeli raid on a Turkish aid ship that left nine activists dead. Israel is revamping the blockade to focus primarily on weapons and related material.

"Now the policy is again to encourage. Come and build but don't build tunnels and don't build missiles, so we shall not have to control," Peres said.


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