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.
Over dinner in a Ramallah restaurant April 4, Fayyad told me he offered his column simultaneously to several major American newspapers to get this story out quickly. But do his Hamas colleagues accept his reasoning? Fayyad made clear he was not flying solo.
Just before my trip ended, the Palestinian Authority at long last put me in touch with an official who was no low-level bureaucrat. Nasser al-Shaer was deputy prime minister in the all-Hamas regime last Aug. 19 when he was seized in an Israeli raid on his home in Ramallah and held for a month without charges or evidence.
In his ministry office April 7, he looked nothing like the shirt-sleeved, tie-less Shaer photographed when he was released last Sept. 27. Holder of a doctorate from England's University of Manchester, he was dressed in a stylish suit. More telling than his appearance was what he said.
When I asked whether Hamas agreed with Fayyad's formulation, Shaer said it did not matter: "We are talking about the government, not groups." He said Hamas was no more relevant to Palestinian policy than the views of extremist anti-Palestinian Israeli Cabinet member Avigdor Lieberman are to Israeli policy. Unexpectedly, Shaer expressed dismay that "previous attempts at peace were ruined by suicide bombers. Now, we look forward to a sustained peace."
While avoiding Israel-bashing, Shaer conjectured: "I don't think the Israeli government wants a two-state solution. Without pressure from the president of the United States, nothing is going to happen." That sounded like a plea for help from George W. Bush. But will he hear it if Elliott Abrams does not listen?