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Freezing Out Hamas No Longer Viable, Say Policy Heavyweights

Washington must forcefully reinsert itself into the Palestinian-Israeli peace process.

WASHINGTON, Mar 27 -- A new report from a New York-based think tank and delivered to U.S. President Barack Obama by a signatory who is also a current adviser recommends that Washington forcefully reinsert itself into the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, calling for "a more pragmatic approach to Hamas."

Even by its title, the report from the U.S./Middle East Project (USMEP) alludes to the urgency of U.S. involvement: "A Last Chance for a Two-State Israel-Palestine Agreement."

"[T]he next six to 12 months may well represent the last chance for a fair, viable and lasting solution," said the paper. "[I]t is essential that the incoming administration make Arab-Israeli peace a high national security priority from the beginning."

Taking on the frank realism of several of the group’s signatories, the statement lays out specific policy recommendations, debunks arguments against robust engagement, and offers calculations of the benefits of action -- including allowing for the engagement of the Islamic rejectionist group Hamas by international actors in the peace process.

Hamas currently rules the Gaza Strip despite the beating the group took during a three-week war launched by Israel during the winter.

In his Mar. 26 Op-Ed for the website of the New York Times, columnist Roger Cohen calls the report’s signatories a group of "former senior officials whose counsel [Obama] respects" and says that he believes their views to be largely in line with the thinking of National Security Adviser Gen. Jim Jones and the administration’s Middle East envoy, former Sen. George Mitchell. He adds that Obama is expected to eventually meet with the group.

Former Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) fellow, former longtime president of the American Jewish Congress, and University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies professor Henry Siegman convened the group under the auspices of USMEP, where he is president.

Other signatories, experts and elder statespersons of U.S. foreign policy include USMEP chairman Gen. Brent Scowcroft; former Pres. Jimmy Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski; former members of Congress Chuck Hagel, Lee Hamilton, and Nancy Kassebaum-Baker; Amb. Thomas Pickering; and, notably, former Federal Reserve chairman and current Obama administration Economic Advisory Group chair Paul Volcker.

The authors acknowledge what has become obvious to many in the U.S., Israeli, and Palestinian pro-peace crowd: that Hamas may be the last, best hope for saving the two-state solution.

The paper, while not calling for direct U.S. engagement with Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by the State Department, says that "Hamas is simply too powerful and too important to be ignored."

"A legitimate, unified and empowered Palestinian side to negotiate with Israel is of importance if any agreement is to be reached and implemented," says the report. "Direct U.S. engagement with Hamas may not now be practical, but shutting out the movement and isolating Gaza has only made it stronger and Fatah weaker."

Fatah rules the West Bank and has control of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Many international actors consider PA president Mahmoud Abbas to be a palatable negotiator for Palestinians, but his Fatah faction is widely considered corrupt and ineffectual by Palestinians.

After winning elections in 2006, Hamas was briefly in a national unity government with Fatah, which much of the international community opposed with vigor -- especially the U.S., which boycotted the government, withdrew aid, and reportedly aided Fatah in preparations for a coup d’etat.

In a preemptive counter-coup Hamas violently seized control of Gaza, effectively cleaving the Palestinian territories and the PA.

While the USMEP report says recognition of Israel should not be a condition for taking part in the process -- as it currently is in the conditions laid down by the international "Quartet" of the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia -- it does list, among others, a recognition of Abbas as chief negotiator as prerequisite for inclusion.

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