Analysis: Are the three conditions on Hamas negotiable?

The European tone that has emerged recently is to get over the three criteria issue, so it doesn't pose a threat to the diplomatic process.

When the Quartet meets Monday in Sharm e-Sheikh on the sidelines of a conference dedicated to the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, subtle but substantial differences between the US and the Europeans are likely to be aired, centering more around the Palestinian reconciliation talks than on the rebuilding of Gaza. Regarding reconstruction of the Gaza Strip, there is little disagreement about the principle that money for the reconstruction should be used for the benefit of Gaza residents, not to help rebuild Hamas. The dilemma is not whether this should be done, but rather how to do it, and what mechanism could be created to channel the aid into Gaza in a manner that will not strengthen Hamas in the process. Not so the question regarding the Palestinian reconciliation talks and how the international community should deal with a unified Palestinian government that might include Hamas. While the international community is still in verbal agreement regarding Hamas's need to accept three basic conditions before becoming a legitimate partner for the international community, there is wide variation in how serious each of the major players are on the matter. The three benchmarks Hamas must pass are recognizing Israel, forswearing terrorism and accepting previous agreements. While the US genuinely seems adamant in wanting to see Hamas change its stripes before being given any international legitimacy, even as part of a wider Palestinian unity government, the European tone that has emerged in recent talks in Jerusalem with Israeli leaders is a desire to somehow get over the three criteria issue, so that it doesn't pose a threat to the diplomatic process. For instance, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, when asked during a Voice of America interview Friday whether she was encouraged by reports of progress in the Palestinian reconciliation talks, said, "Well, I believe that it's important, if there is some reconciliation and a move toward a unified authority, that it's very clear that Hamas knows the conditions that have been set forth by the Quartet, by the Arab summit. And they must renounce violence, recognize Israel and abide by previous commitments; otherwise, I don't think it will result in the kind of positive step forward either for the Palestinian people or as a vehicle for a reinvigorated effort to obtain peace that leads to a Palestinian state." That type of unequivocal demand on Hamas to accept the three conditions has not been heard in meetings Israeli officials have had recently with European leaders; meetings where - according to the Israeli officials - many of the Europeans want to see more "creativity" in finding a way to let Hamas come back into the PA, even if the organization falls short of accepting all three conditions. For the Europeans, one official said, the process is more important than the substance. And in order to move the process forward, they are willing to compromise on the substance. Not so Israel. Or, as Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu said in a Washington Post interview published Saturday, "Hamas is incompatible with peace." The US, according to Israeli officials, still agrees with Israel on this, as does Quartet envoy Tony Blair. The officials, who have held numerous talks in recent days with both US and European officials, said the general feeling was that no one really believed Hamas was going to change. But, the officials said, there was a tendency among some European leaders to want to "sweep the matter under the rug," and believe it was worthwhile "finagling reconciliation" so that the "peace process" could be advanced. President Shimon Peres alluded to this Sunday during a meeting with visiting Norwegian Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store. "I cannot accept the approach of some of your colleagues, leaders in Europe, who need to open their eyes to the reality of the situation and understand that Hamas is nothing other than a murderous terrorist organization, which uses Palestinian children as human shields, and which receives its orders directly from Iran." If that's what Peres thinks, and what he tells his international interlocutors, one can only imagine where Netanyahu stands on the issue, and what he is saying about the reconciliation plans. This issue is likely to be one of the first points of disagreement between the EU and a Netanyahu-led Israeli government, but on this issue he is likely to find common cause - at least in the short term - with the US.