US holds secret talks to weaken Hamas,00.html

Uzi Mahnaimi in New York

SENIOR Israeli and Palestinian representatives have held secret talks in America to discuss ways of sidelining Hamas, the Islamic militant group that took power for the first time in the Palestinian territories yesterday after emerging as the surprise victor in elections last month.

Senior figures linked to the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government took part in two days of talks in Texas. The meeting was chaired by Edward Djerejian, 65, a former US ambassador to Israel and Syria, who was briefed by the US State Department before it began.

News of the contacts between the Israelis and supporters of the Fatah party of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, emerged as the new Palestinian parliament, dominated by Hamas, was sworn in yesterday in Ramallah, on the West Bank. Abbas then asked Hamas to form a government.

Hamas, which is committed to the destruction of Israel, immediately rejected calls by Abbas to open negotiations with the Jewish state. Abdel Aziz Duaik, who was elected speaker, said Hamas would try to live up to its “rightful duty to resist occupation”.

A participant in the US talks, held on February 8 and 9 at the James A Baker III Institute for Public Policy in Houston, said those present had discussed how to sideline Hamas, whose parliamentary victory has been seen as a serious obstacle to any peace settlement.

Jibril Rajoub, 50, national security adviser to Abbas who led the Palestinian delegation, confirmed yesterday that the meeting had been backed by Washington. “I believe that the State Department has a great interest that our talks should succeed,” Rajoub said.

“They know that Hamas can’t deliver and the most important issue now is to strengthen the position of the president.” He said that Abbas had been informed of the results of the meeting and “was encouraged and approved the understanding achieved between the two sides”.

Djerejian met senior State Department officials the day before the meeting and updated them by telephone during the sessions. The source said the most urgent issue under discussion had been how to prevent a humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian territories if the United States and other western countries went ahead with a threat to cut aid in response to Hamas’s victory.

One of the proposals discussed was to channel western aid to the Palestinians through governors who were members of Fatah rather than through a Hamas government. “What happened last month (Hamas’s victory) was a political accident that can still be reversed,” Rajoub is said to have told the meeting.

“It should all be done in a democratic and legal way. Money should not only continue to flow but even to increase, so long as it does not end up in Hamas’s hands.”

Rajoub is understood to have claimed that Hamas’s natural support stands at no more than 15%. “I believe that we can turn the clock back and new parliamentary elections are not ruled out in due course,” he is said to have added.

The talks appear to have opened a new channel of communication between Abbas, Ehud Olmert, the acting Israeli prime minister, and the Americans, which is expected to be used again in coming months.

The source said the meeting’s findings had been reported to both leaders and also to Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, who is travelling to the Middle East this week.

Each side had four representatives. The Israeli side included General Uri Sagui, 60, a former head of military intelligence.

Djerejian is believed to have been planning the talks since the beginning of this year with the aim of promoting the Middle East peace process. His proposal took on a new dimension after Hamas’s victory.

Most of the principal breakthroughs in the Middle East have been the result of negotiations that began in secret. These included a peace agreement concluded in 1979 between Israel and Egypt and the so-called Oslo peace accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians, signed in Washington in September 1993. One of the architects of the Oslo agreement, Dr Yair Hirschfeld of Haifa University, was also a participant in the Houston talks.

Although Hamas has 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian parliament, Abbas retains considerable power as president, controlling foreign affairs, security and peace negotiations. In his speech to parliament he demanded that the militants recognise existing peace deals and back his moderate policies — including negotiations with Israel — as the “sole strategic choice” of the Palestinians.

After the session, both Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas’s choice for prime minister, said that they would try to resolve their deep differences through dialogue. Haniyeh was prevented by Israeli security controls from travelling from Gaza to Ramallah and was forced to follow the proceedings on a video link.

Sami Abu Zahra, a Hamas spokesman, said there was a “clear political divide” between the two sides, especially over negotiations with Israel. But he added: “This difference will not lead to a clash between the government and the presidency as the political process is already blocked by the Israeli occupation which does not recognise any peace agreements.” After leaving parliament, Abbas told reporters: “Why assume that there will be a crisis? Let us resort to dialogue. Everything comes through dialogue.”

The Israeli cabinet is due to vote today on imposing sanctions against the Palestinians, including sealing Gaza and keeping out thousands of Palestinian workers.