To defuse the threat from Gaza militants to Israel and President Bush's Mideast peace program, the U.S. has decided that the ends justify the means.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, is considered a terrorist group by Washington. U.S. law forbids official contacts. Nonetheless, the Bush administration is giving quiet support for Egypt's attempt to broker a deal with Hamas for a truce in Gaza.
Under this approach, which U.S. officials and Mideast diplomats confirmed, Hamas would halt rocket attacks from Gaza. Israel would agree not to launch the kind of military incursions that nearly wrecked the U.S.-sponsored peace talks last weekend and would ease its blockade of Gaza.
"It's better to have a stable situation right now than to have Hamas doing what Hamas was doing, which was pulling the thread," a senior U.S. official said Thursday.
The official spoke on condition of anonymity to describe a sensitive policy shift that gained momentum when Mahmoud Abbas, the U.S.-backed Palestinian president, canceled peace talks to protest the deaths of more than 120 Palestinians in the Israeli assault.
Any progress is tenuous, as seen Thursday with the fatal shootings by a Palestinian gunman at a library of a rabbinical seminary in Jerusalem. It was the first major militant attack in the city in more than four years.
There was no immediate claim of responsibility. But Hamas militants in Gaza praised the shooting and thousands of Palestinians took to the streets of Gaza to celebrate.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, after NATO meetings in Brussels, was asked about Egyptian-brokered truce talks. "I talked with the Egyptians and we fully expect the Egyptians to carry out the efforts that they said they would carry out to try to bring calm to the region, to try to improve the situation in Gaza," she said.
She said Egypt was a firm ally in Bush's peace push, begun last fall in Annapolis, Md. "I trust what the Egyptians are doing is exactly in that course," Rice said. "It is extremely important that the negotiations continue" and calm is restored.
U.S. weighs in on Hamas
Representatives from Hamas and Islamic Jihad traveled from Gaza to the northern Egyptian city of el-Arish on Thursday to confer with Egyptian intelligence officials about a possible truce. David Welch, the U.S. Mideast envoy, also was in Egypt on Thursday to meet with the foreign minister and intelligence chief about the mediation.
The U.S. dislikes the terms truce or cease-fire because they lend political legitimacy to Hamas. Rice talks in public only about the need for calm. But during stops in Israel and the West Bank this week, she did acknowledge Hamas' influence, saying the group has the power to halt rocket attacks and is trying to stop the peace process.
Hamas has military and political wings and officially pledges Israel's destruction.
The militants won Palestinian elections two years ago, opening a rift with the moderate-led leadership on whom Bush and Israel have pinned hopes for a peace outline this year. Hamas staged a bloody takeover of Gaza last June. Since then, Abbas has had no direct authority over nearly half his people and rocket attacks have increased.
Someone has to negotiate with Hamas
U.S. support for a truce acknowledges the obvious: Hamas is not going away and ignoring or insulting the militants has not worked. The militants are an insurmountable obstacle so long as they can hold peace progress hostage, to use the loaded term Rice chose on Wednesday when she announced that Abbas would return to talks.
The U.S. had resisted Arab proposals for accommodation with Hamas in the past, insisting it does not pay to talk to terrorists. Israel also fears that radicals would use the lull of a cease-fire to rearm.
"Recent events graphically demonstrated to the United States Hamas' ability to sabotage the negotiating process," an Arab diplomat in Washington said. "This has lead them to the conclusion that there has to be some sort of cease-fire, which in turn means someone has to negotiate this with Hamas. That someone is Egypt."
Egypt, a key U.S. ally and the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, has tried for months to persuade the U.S. it could work out a deal that benefits everyone, without benefiting Hamas too much. The secular Egyptian government of President Hosni Mubarak has no love lost for the Islamic militants. Egypt was embarrassed when Hamas blasted down portions of Egypt's small border with Gaza in January, allowing thousands of cooped-up Palestinians to flow into Egypt temporarily.
"The administration seems to want to proceed with this in a way that does not implicate them in direct talks with Hamas, or in a way that lends U.S. recognition to Hamas' takeover of Gaza," said the diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity to summarize internal government discussions. "This is why they seem to be keeping their distance."