Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Hamas - Continued

U.S. end run on Hamas
Secret back door channel for Israel, Fatah
Publishing Date: 22.05.06 19:57
Yitzhak Rabin
Washington has established a secret "back door" channel for Israel and Fatah, who lost the Palestinian election earlier this year.

The contact is a high-risk strategy to sideline Hamas, the Islamic militant group who hold 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament after emerging as the surprise victor at elections in January.

The channel was created after talks in February between senior Israeli and Fatah officials at the James A Baker 111 Institute for Public Policy in Houston, Texas, to discuss ways to sideline Hamas, which is increasingly seen as a major obstacle to any lasting peace settlement.

In the past months, there have been regular contacts between both sides with Edward Djerjian, the 65 year-old former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria, monitoring the discussions. He reports directly to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Jibril Rajoud, the tough-speaking national security adviser to Mahmoud Abbas, said that all the contacts had been "warmly welcomed by Israel."

This endorsement was confirmed by General Uri Sagui, the 60-year-old former head of Israeli intelligence. He heads the four man Israeli team.

Soft-spoken and self-deprecating, the tall Sagui has long been seen in Israel as a hawk turned dove. He had been the first to detect a sea of change in Damascus a decade ago - and had become unpopular with his argument that peace could be achieved by giving up the Golan Heights.

"Move every one of our people out of there. It's a huge price, but it is the only hope to get a proper, lasting peace," he said to Yitzhak Rabin, when he was prime minister. Rabin was still considering the idea when he was assassinated.

Sagui had spent most of his army career defending the Heights and had been wounded there four times. But he is still determined to push for the Golan Heights to be abandoned in repeatedly saying, "it is the only way."

But the Fatah representatives at the Houston meeting also remembered that Sagui had approved for Mossad to assassinate Israel's enemies who could not easily be brought to trial before the Jewish state's courts.

Nevertheless, after initial tension between both sides eased, Sagui emerged as the prime creator of the new channel - agreeing with Rajoud's words: "I believe that Hamas's natural support stands at no more than 20 per cent. If we can turn back the clock and have a meaningful relationship with Israel, it could be an important step to have new parliamentary elections."

He is said to have told Sagui: "The Hamas victory was a political accident that can still be reversed."

So far Washington has adopted a cautious approach to the "back door" contacts. But the fact is that most of the breakthroughs in the Middle East have been the result of secret negotiations - the most famous being the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt and the Oslo peace accords between Israel and the Palestinians in September 1993. Sagui was involved in both.

He reports all the contacts with Fatah to prime minister Ehud Olmert, while Rajoud performs a similar function with Mahmoud Abbas.

"It's really a question of whether we both see the glass half full or half empty", said Sagui.

In the mounting tensions in the region, both men can only hope they can work towards refilling the glass - with help from Washington.

-- G2B contributor Gordon Thomas

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