Hamas Looms as Spoiler in Middle East Peace Talks

Middle East peace talks got under way Thursday for the first time in nearly two years with a violent reminder sent by the Palestinian terror group Hamas that it will try to torpedo any agreement struck in Washington between Israelis and the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist despite that acknowledgment by the Palestinian Authority more than a decade ago.

As a result, the PA, led by President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah Party, run the West Bank while Hamas has its thumb on Gaza. Joining the two territories into one state is one of the Palestinians' objectives of peace talks.

Ignoring Hamas, however, is tricky business. The group flexed its muscle with back-to-back attacks this week on Israelis in the West Bank. Those kinds of attacks position it to spoil any meeting of the minds.

Analysts say that however vile Hamas, the U.S.-led talks can't bear fruit until the organization is either placated or ostracized by its own people.

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David Makovsky, a fellow with The Washington Institute for Near East Policy who recently traveled to Ramallah in the West Bank to meet with Abbas, sided with the latter strategy.

"The best way to deal with Hamas is to demonstrate success in the West Bank and let the people decide," Makovsky said. "People won't believe a Middle East peace speech, but they will believe a deal."

The two other countries at the table in the re-launched peace talks are Egypt, represented by President Hosni Mubarak, and Jordan, represented by King Abdullah II.

Mubarak, in a New York Times column published before the talks commenced, said that a two-state solution hinges on concessions regarding the Gaza Strip, including a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, an end to the blockade and "reconciliation between Hamas and its rival Fatah."

"The Palestinians cannot make peace with a house divided. If Gaza is excluded from the framework of peace, it will remain a source of conflict, undermining any final settlement," Mubarak wrote.

A Brookings Institution analysis said that while Hamas is "well-placed to play the spoiler role," the Palestinian Authority is trying to give them less "incentive" by seeking Gaza-centric concessions like the release of prisoners, improved access and economic aid.

That would also improve chances of marginalizing Hamas further, since its agenda is on shaky footing at home. A Palestinian Center for Public Opinion poll found more Palestinians would prefer a Fatah-led government than a Hamas-led government.

"There is a chance for peace," said Michael O'Hanlon, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, adding that a final agreement would need to allow both sides to claim part of Jerusalem as their own. "The main issue really is political will."

An August study from the Arab World for Research and Development found 95 percent of Palestinians would consider a peace accord as "the end of the conflict."

Until then, rhetoric on the far ends of both sides not surprisingly escalated in the run-up to the talks, which ended Thursday with a pledge to meet again in two weeks.

Religious conservatives in Israel have questioned the talks and settlers in the West Bank started building again Wednesday in violation of a government freeze on construction.

On Tuesday, four Israelis were killed in a fatal shooting in the West Bank near Hebron. Hamas took responsibility for that before then claiming responsibility for the shooting of two more Israelis in a roadside attack Wednesday in the West Bank. One of the Israelis was seriously wounded in the attack, according to Haaretz.

The Jerusalem Post reported that the top Hamas official in Gaza, Mahmoud Zahar, also delivered a speech Wednesday in which he assailed the peace talks.

"Today marks the start of direct negotiations between someone who has no right to represent the Palestinian people and the brutal occupier," he said.

Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both tried to tamp down the incitement. Referencing the Hamas attacks, Netanyahu said security is essential for any lasting peace agreement and condemned those trying to disrupt the process.

"They seek to kill our people, kill our state, kill our peace," he said.