GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip – Leaders of Hamas have begun reaching out to the West with conciliatory words, saying the Islamic militant group wants to be part of a Mideast solution and raising the possibility they would someday accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
In the most significant statement so far, Hamas chief Khaled Mashaal told British lawmakers recently that the group is open to "real peace." In Gaza, the Hamas government said last week it is ready to discuss "any approaches and proposals that can lead the region out of its current situation."
In a recent interview, Hamas lawmaker Yehiye Moussa said the group is "not demanding to destroy Israel." West Bank legislator Mahmoud Ramahi added that Hamas is ready to talk to the West — stressing the group has nothing in common with the virulently anti-Western Al Qaeda.
The new tone seems mostly aimed at President Obama, who met Monday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington. As he puts together a new Mideast strategy, Obama must decide whether the U.S. will keep shunning Hamas, which seized Gaza by force in 2007 after winning parliamentary elections.
So far, the U.S. and international community insist they will deal with Hamas only if the group recognizes Israel first.
But some foreign policy experts in the U.S. and Israel are advocating a new approach to Hamas, noting that neither the boycott nor Israel's recent war in Gaza have toppled the militants.
Those advocating change include a former Israeli military commander of Gaza, an ex-chief of Israel's Mossad spy agency and a group led by Obama's now chief economic adviser, Paul Volcker.
Volcker's group told Obama that any future Palestinian government that includes Hamas should be judged by whether it's ready to observe a truce with Israel, and allow moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel — not by whether Hamas is ready to revoke its ideology.
Hamas has said in the past it's open to such ideas, and would leave it to Palestinians to decide whether to accept any peace deal that emerges.
But others insist any change in policy toward Hamas would be dangerous.
They warn that Hamas hasn't abandoned its goal of destroying Israel, citing as evidence the continued weapons smuggling into Gaza and Hamas' ties with Iran. Engaging Hamas would legitimize violence, weaken Abbas and undermine moderate Arab countries trying to contain Iran, these critics say.
Hamas is notoriously difficult to pin down to clarify its positions, with hard-liners and more pragmatic politicians often issuing contradictory statements. Even as some have reached out in recent weeks, other Hamas figures continue to highlight what the group calls its right to wage armed struggle against Israeli occupation.
Still, a change in Hamas tone has been noticeable, particularly in comments by Mashaal.
In a televised speech last month aimed at British lawmakers, Mashaal urged Europe to prod the Obama administration to take a new Mideast approach.
"You will find not just Hamas, but also the Palestinian people and all the Arabs keen on making real peace, one based on restoring rights and free of occupation," he said.
He also praised as a "golden opportunity" the Arab peace initiative, which offers Israel recognition in exchange for a withdrawal from all territory it captured in 1967. Such feelers appear part of Hamas' attempt to win acceptance of its Gaza rule, plus an end to the stifling two-year border closure there.
Yet the feelers fall short of meeting the West's conditions.
On that point, Hamas politicians insist there's no way the group will recognize Israel now — because they say, it is one of their few negotiating strengths and they can't give it up until they know what they will get in return.
Israel is not impressed by the outreach of Hamas, which is listed by the U.S. State Department as a sponsor of terrorism.
Its governments have been deeply suspicious of the group, which has fired thousands of rockets at Israeli towns in recent years. Israeli officials note that Hamas' founding charter remains pledged to Israel's destruction.
Netanyahu has said he wants to see Hamas deposed. And Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor argues that Western engagement with Hamas would be a severe blow to both the moderate Abbas and to ally Egypt — undermining their efforts at "stability, security and political compromise."
Obama is expected to unveil his Mideast strategy sometime in June. He has it is in U.S. interests to have a Palestinian state alongside Israel.
But officials in the Obama administration also have signaled that Hamas won't be permitted to cut corners and fall short of recognizing Israel. The officials indicate that the new U.S. Mideast strategy won't include direct U.S. contacts with an unreformed Hamas.
The stalemate over Hamas is just one of the factors stalling Palestinian-Israeli peace talks — but it is considered significant.
Abbas doesn't speak for all Palestinians and rules only in the West Bank. Palestinian unity talks have run aground because Hamas won't be part of a government that recognizes Israel. The situation is further complicated by Netanyahu's unwillingness to accept the idea of Palestinian statehood.
Amid the stalemate, the idea of a different approach has gained some traction.
In Israel, Doron Almog, a retired general who commanded troops in Gaza from 2000-2003, says Israel should hold direct negotiations with Hamas on a cease-fire and prisoner swap, threatening massive Israeli retaliation for any transgressions such as rocket fire. Until now, such talks have been conducted indirectly only, through Egypt.
Ephraim Halevy, former chief of Israel's Mossad spy agency, also has said direct talks are a good idea, but that he'd wait a little longer to let Hamas stew in the aftermath of the Gaza war and become more pliant.
"Parts of Hamas — it is not something unitary — could become part of the solution," he said.
In the U.S., the independent Volcker team called on Obama to both reconsider its Hamas approach, and to flesh out the outlines of a final Israeli-Palestinian agreement now rather than leaving it to the two sides, said Henry Siegman, who runs the U.S./Middle East Project think tank and is in touch with the group.
"The only way one can expect Hamas to change its position, in some significant way, is if they finally believe they might be missing an opportunity," he said.