Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- On Saturday, April 7, ending a seven-day visit to Israel, I finally got an interview I had sought for a year. I sat down in a Palestinian National Authority office in Ramallah with a leader of Hamas, the extremist organization that won last year's elections. He pushed a two-state Israeli-Palestinian solution and deplored suicide bombers. But officials in Washington seemingly do not want to hear Hamas calling for peace.

No fringe character, it was Hamas's Nasser al-Shaer: education minister and deputy prime minister in the new coalition government. He signaled that this regime recognizes Israel's right to exist and forgoes violence -- conditions essential for talks about a viable Palestinian state adjoining Israel -- even though Hamas does not. "We hope that it is going to be a matter of time," Shaer told me. "But there is a big chance now."

When I returned to Washington last week, I sought the reaction of Bush administration officials (who refuse any contact with Hamas). I asked to talk to Elliott Abrams, the deputy national security adviser who is most influential in making and executing policy on Israel. Abrams once was my fellow Cold Warrior and friend whom I defended, but his aide let me know last Thursday that Abrams would not talk to me about Hamas. A senior State Department official showed no interest in what Shaer told me.

U.S. policy goes well beyond the economic boycott that has devastated the Palestinian Authority since Hamas won elections Jan. 25, 2006. U.S. government officials and contract workers in the Israeli-occupied territories must leave when anybody from Hamas enters a room. Since the State Department lists Hamas as a terrorist organization, Americans who do not work for the government fear that contacting a Hamas member of the Palestinian government would violate the Patriot Act.

Accordingly, a year ago, sources who put me in touch with other Palestinians refused to help with Hamas. The best contact I could make then was a brief telephone conversation with a Hamas underling.

I arrived in Jerusalem again April 3, two weeks after Hamas brought the more moderate opposition Fatah party into a new National Unity government. The Los Angeles Times had just run a remarkable op-ed column by political independent Salam Fayyad, finance minister in the new government who lived in Washington for 20 years, served as a World Bank official and is well respected in the West. He wrote that the Palestine Liberation Organization's 1993 acceptance of Israel and disavowal of violence is "a crystal-clear and binding agreement" that "no Palestinian government has the authority to revoke." He added that the unity government's platform "explicitly" pledges to honor all PLO commitments.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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