Solana softens policy towards Hamas

Position dovetails with French stand; Olmert tells Mitchell IDF op gave PA chance to reassert in Gaza.

mitchell olmert 248.88 (photo credit: GPO)
mitchell olmert 248.88
(photo credit: GPO)
In a sign that the international community's position on Hamas is weakening, EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana would not say unequivocally Wednesday during an interview with The Jerusalem Post that the EU should stick with the three preconditions it set for talking with the Islamist group. Solana's comments came as US special Mideast envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel on what Israeli officials described as a "stock-taking" mission. One of the major issues on the agenda was consolidating the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip. Ever since Hamas took over Gaza in 2007, the international community has largely isolated it, saying it must recognize Israel, forswear violence, and accept previous Palestinian-Israeli agreements. Since Operation Cast Lead, however, there are an increasing number of voices in Europe saying this policy is anachronistic, and that a way must be found to deal directly with Hamas. Asked his opinion, Solana said, "We want to move in a political dynamic, that political dynamic is impossible to have outside two basic parameters." Solana said those two parameters were a two-state solution and the Arab League peace initiative. Solana's comments dovetailed with efforts by some in Europe, led by France, to drop recognition of Israel as a condition for talking with Hamas, saying it would be enough if Hamas accepted the Arab peace initiative, which calls for a two-state solution, and which would then be tantamount to tacit recognition of Israel. Foreign Ministry officials said this position weakened the Israeli and US argument that there are moderate Palestinians with whom it is possible to work, and extremists who must not be given legitimacy. "It is clear that some in Europe are looking for a way to deal with Hamas," one official said. "They are willing to give up on the need to recognize Israel. But that is a cornerstone of our policy." He said Israel would diplomatically fight any changes to the three conditions, and that letting Hamas in "through the back" door would only weaken the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, in his meeting on Wednesday with Mitchell, said Hamas had emerged weakened from Operation Cast Lead, and there was now an opportunity for the PA to reestablish itself in some form inside the Strip. Olmert also talked about the Gaza border crossings with Mitchell, saying that while they would be open for humanitarian assistance, they would not return to "full, routine functioning until the issue of Gilad Schalit is solved." According to Olmert's office, the two men also spoke about the diplomatic process, with Olmert repeating his commitments to a two-state solution, the Annapolis process, and the road map peace plan. He also reiterated to Mitchell the importance of former US president's George W. Bush's letter to Ariel Sharon stating that the US recognized that facts on the ground had changed since 1967 and would have to be taken into consideration when drawing up future borders, and that the US would not support a right of Palestinians refugees to return to pre-1967 Israel. Mitchell also met with Defense Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who, according to a statement issued by her office, said that while Israel believed in the two-state vision, Palestinian refugees would not be allowed into Israel. Other top Israeli officials, including the Defense Ministry's Diplomatic-Security Bureau chief Amos Gilad, Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilna'i and Israeli Ambassador to the US Sallai Meridor later joined the meeting between Barak and Mitchell. Mitchell also met President Shimon Peres. The US envoy, after meeting Olmert, issued a brief statement saying that "the prime minister and I discussed the critical importance to consolidate the cease-fire, including the cessation of hostilities and an end to smuggling, and the reopening of crossings based on the 2005 agreement. President Obama has said the US is committed to Israel's security and to its right to defend itself against legitimate threats." Mitchell, who did not take any questions from the press, said Obama had made clear that the US "sustain an active commitment toward reaching the goal of two states living side by side in peace and security." Before coming to Israel, Mitchell met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak in Cairo, and following their talks told reporters that the Gaza cease-fire was "critical." "The United States is committed to vigorously pursuing lasting peace and stability in the region," he said. On Thursday, Mitchell is scheduled to meet Chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. Gabi Ashkenazi, Mossad director Meir Dagan and Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) head Yuval Diskin. He will then go to Ramallah for a meeting with Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. On Friday he is scheduled to meet Likud head Binyamin Netanyahu, before going to Amman. He is also scheduled to visit Saudi Arabia, Paris and London before returning to Washington early next week. Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.