WASHINGTON — President Bush on Thursday did not rule out dealing with Hamas, which won the Palestinian parliamentary elections, but said the militant Islamic group would have to renounce its call for Israel's destruction.
“Peace is never dead,” Bush said at a news conference when asked if he ruled out ever dealing with Hamas.
But he added that “if your platform is the destruction of Israel, it means you’re not a partner in peace, and we’re interested in peace.”
Asked in a follow-up question if he was ruling out dealing with a Palestinian government that was made up partly of Hamas, he replied: “They don’t have a government yet, so you’re asking me to speculate on what the government will look like. I have made it very clear however that a political party that articulates the destruction of Israel as part of a platform is a party with which we will not deal.”
Bush called the election results a “wake-up call” to the old guard Palestinian leadership, many of whom are holdovers from the days of Yasser Arafat.
The Hamas victory “reminds me about the power of democracy,” he said. “You see, when you give people the vote, give them the chance to express themselves at the polls and they’re unhappy with the status quo, they’ll let you know.”
Diplomacy push with Hamas
The Islamic militants, who have carried out dozens of suicide bombings, say they oppose peace talks and will not disarm. Israel also refuses to deal with Hamas.
But behind the scenes, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will be talking to Russian, European and U.N. officials later Thursday in a bid to get them to pressure Hamas into renouncing terrorism and accepting Israel’s right to exist.
Rice earlier Thursday said that the world will “speak clearly” on the peace process over the next day or so, but did not outline just how the United States plans to proceed.
Officials are encouraged about Hamas’ participation in the political process and see this as a first step, Andrea Mitchell, NBC’s chief foreign affairs correspondent, reported.
The United States did not deal with Arafat or the Palestinian Liberation Organization for years, Mitchell noted, but once they renounced violence they became key partners for peace.
In his opening statement at the news conference, which was announced less than two hours earlier, Bush offered a preview of his State of the Union speech set for Tuesday.
“I'm going to remind people that we live in historic times ... and that we have a responsibility to lead,” he said.
Asked about his controversial surveillance program, Bush said that “there's no doubt in my mind it is legal” and suggested that he might resist congressional efforts to change it.
“We’ll listen to ideas. If the attempt to write law is likely to expose the nature of the program, I’ll resist it,” the president said.
The president often has press conferences with other world leaders, but only periodically on his own. His previous solo press conference was on Dec. 19 and Thursday’s event was the 22nd solo conference of his administration.
NBC's Andrea Mitchell, Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.