At the time when the PLO was defined in Israel as a terrorist organization, and any Israeli caught speaking to someone from the group was thrown into prison, I was approached by a European acquaintance who told me that the influential PLO "ambassador" to France, Ibrahim Souss, had asked him to set up a meeting with me. I was director-general of the Foreign Ministry, and I immediately reported the conversation to my minister, Yitzhak Shamir. To my great surprise, Shamir, who was not the most dovish of our foreign ministers, replied, "Go ahead and meet with him, but be careful that it is kept quiet and doesn't leak to the press." Shamir was certainly no lover of the PLO, but he believed it useful to have such a contact, and to hear what a high PLO official had to say to us. The PLO in those days was as extreme in its rejection of Israel as is Hamas today. Yasser Arafat was considered by virtually all Israelis to be the epitome of all evil, responsible for the deaths of hundreds of Israelis and others. Yet, as time went by, we witnessed Israeli leaders welcoming him, from Yitzhak Rabin's reluctant handshake on the lawn of the White House to the more enthusiastic welcome by former prime ministers Peres, Netanyahu and Barak. That was then the right thing to do. Realpolitik - policy based on the national interest - superseded sentiment and emotions. Should we be initiating contacts with Hamas today, on the assumption that, extreme as it is, it will eventually face reality and go along the route that the PLO took years ago? Should we be engaging leading Hamas figures in discreet discussions, in much the same way that Shamir approved years ago? Last Friday's Ma'ariv put that question to 10 Israeli personalities, from the Left and the Right. Six out of the 10 favored speaking to Hamas; interestingly, some of those on the Left, Uri Savir, director of the Shimon Peres Center For Peace, and writer Haim Guri, for example, were against, while journalist Emuna Elon, the wife of National Union MK Benny Elon, as well as Eyal Megged, a former close associate of Bibi Netanyahu, and haredi journalist Dudi Zilbershlag were all in favor. Hamas today is the one major factor that can stymie any move to an agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. It is, by every count, the joker in the Annapolis pack. The talks that began on Wednesday, the beginning of the official negotiations that were decided upon at Annapolis, will come to naught unless a solution is found for Hamas violence. Even on the assumption that we, on our side, will be able to overcome the objections of our own extremist "negationists," the division of the Palestinians geographically and ideologically into two virtually enemy camps makes a settlement almost impossible unless Fatah and Hamas can come to terms with each other. There is no way that we can solve our problems with the Palestinians in Judea and Samaria, and leave Gaza to fester under Hamas rule as a separate entity. This fact is well understood by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayad. Moreover, they know that they cannot, by force of arms, fulfill the demand of the road map to dismantle terrorist infrastructure and stop violence; the only way for them to do that is to reach an agreement with Hamas. Both the Palestinians and the Israelis have to fulfill the conditions of the road map as a prelude to the implementation of any agreement they reach in the negotiations that began on Wednesday. For these reasons we can expect one of two scenarios in the near future: either a renewed effort to reach a Fatah-Hamas unity government, despite the tremendous antipathy that exists between the two, or a massive Israeli military operation in the Gaza Strip, aimed at crushing Hamas. There are indications that both the Saudis and the Egyptians are already putting out feelers for a renewal of talks between the two Palestinian factions in an effort to bring them back together again. Such a move would place Israel in a difficult situation. Hamas is opposed to peace negotiations. Moreover, we have said that we will break off talks with the Palestinians if the PA unity government is resuscitated. However, given the fanfare with which Annapolis was initiated, President Bush's commitment to it and the massive backing it has received from all corners of the world, it will be very hard for Israel to walk away from the Annapolis formula. Should we, then, lay aside our objections to accepting Hamas, despite its refusal to recognize Israel and to forgo the use of violence against us? In my book, that would be the wrong message for us to send out, wrong from every point of view. A preferable course of action would be to engage Hamas, not directly, nor even indirectly through Israeli peace groups unconnected with the government, but via third parties - Egyptian, Saudi or whatever - and to propose a long-term hudna, a cease-fire, in which Hamas (and Islamic Jihad) would cease Kassam rocket attacks and all other forms of violence against us, and we would halt our operations against them. There are strong indications that Hamas would not be adverse to such a proposal; on the contrary, it would probably welcome it. We had such an arrangement in the past, under prime minister Ariel Sharon, and Hamas abided by it. As I write these words I know that there are many readers who will say, "No cease-fire. The army should go in there and smash them." Maybe that is what will happen. The army, however, is loath to do it. For one thing, it does not want to be bogged down for a lengthy time in Gaza; it knows that such an operation would only temporarily stop the Kassams (we have been there before), and it knows that there would be heavy casualties. A long-term cease-fire would let the government off the hook - an inability to stop the Kassam attacks is something that no government should allow tolerate. Such a cease-fire would neutralize Hamas resistance to the peace negotiations, and enable the talks to continue. One thing should be clear: the only way to weaken Hamas is to give the Palestinian people hope for a political solution. They will not support Hamas, not vote for it in the next elections, if they believe that the negotiations that began on Wednesday can bring positive results. If, on the other hand, the talks falter or fail, we will see Hamastan not only in Gaza but in Judea and Samaria as well, and no military operation will be able to prevent this.