A bipartisan group of former U.S. policy makers urged the Bush administration Wednesday to provide for dialogue with the militant Palestinian group Hamas as part of diplomacy leading to the U.S.-sponsored Middle East peace conference in November. In a letter to President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the eight political figures said the meeting should focus on the end game of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. VOA's David Gollust reports from the State Department.
The former officials warn of severe consequences if the conference fails, and they say the gathering should at the very least produce agreement on the contours of a permanent peace accord that should, in turn, be enshrined in a U.N. Security Council resolution.
The eight senior figures, including former House International Relations Committee Chairman Lee Hamilton and former Carter administration national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, issued the letter on the eve of Secretary of State Rice's departure on a critical trip to the Middle East.
The Bush administration has avoided specifics on what the conference should produce. But the bipartisan group called for a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza based on 1967 lines with only minor and reciprocal changes, divided sovereignty with the capitals of both states in Jerusalem, and resettlement of Palestinian refugees only in the new Palestinian state, ruling out a right of return to Israel.
In a telephone conference call, Brzezinski said the plan necessarily calls for painful tradeoffs by both parties.
"No right of return. That is a very difficult pill, a painful pill for many Palestinians to swallow. And yet we recognize that it is an absolute necessity. Secondly, some genuine sharing of Jerusalem. That's a difficult concession for many Israelis to make. Yet we know there will be no peace, and no peace recognized as legitimate for the Palestinians, if there is no sharing. Mutual accommodation based on the '67 lines - not easy but absolutely necessary so that the peace is not a peace of conquest or dictation but again, of a reasonable compromise."
The panel members said the conference should be inclusive and they commended the Bush administration for its decision to invite Syria among other Arab states. They did not specifically call for Hamas to be invited, but did say a genuine dialogue should be opened with the Islamic militant group, perhaps conducted by envoys of the United Nations or the international Middle East Quartet.
Former Congressman Hamilton said excluding Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, would only encourage the group to play a spoiler's role.
"I don't think splintering or dividing the Palestinians is going to help solve the problem. And you've always got to think when you're negotiating an agreement about the implementation of the agreement, that if you isolate, as the statement says, the Palestinian Hamas group, you exclude them from process and they'll have every reason to try to disrupt the agreement that is reached," he said.
Rice leaves Friday on a mission that will first take her to Moscow for two days of security talks, and then to the Middle East where she is expected to spend at least five days talking to Israeli and Palestinian leaders to prepare for the conference.
The Secretary has not offer any U.S. proposals, saying her aim is to advance work already underway between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on a statement of principles for the conference.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack was non-committal on the letter to Rice, other than to say that useful ideas will be considered.
"We don't necessarily have a corner on good ideas. If there are good ideas out there that we can feed into the process, absolutely we'll take them into account. But our focus is going to be working with both of the parties to try to help them memorialize and come to a variety of different understandings and move the process as far as they possibly can in time for this meeting, and to use the meeting as a mechanism to again try and take the process to another level," he said.
The Bush administration has opposed any dealings with Hamas, which the United States lists as a terrorist organization as long as it refuses to recognize Israel's right to exist or renounce violence.