West must stop boycotting Hamas, Ahtisaari says

WASHINGTON Mon Apr 6, 2009 9:50pm EDT

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Hamas must be brought into talks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it is both dangerous and pointless to exclude the militant group, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Marrti Ahtisaari said on Monday.

"We have to start, I think, talking to Hamas," Ahtisaari told Reuters in an interview. "You can't eliminate those who have power. You have to talk to those who are representative, whether you like their views or not."

The United States regards Hamas as a terrorist organization and has worked to isolate the group since it won Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, defeating the Fatah faction of President Mahmoud Abbas.

Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip, and Fatah, which holds sway in the West Bank, "have to get their act together and form a united front" to end their power struggle, Ahtisaari said.

He suggested it was unrealistic for the West to demand that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce violence and respect past peace deals before it would deal with the group.

"I am not a card player but I would definitely not start my game with you by saying 'Hey, I have four aces,'" he said.

"It's dangerous if you exclude. Look at Algeria," he added in a reference to the brutal insurgency that erupted in the North African country after the authorities in 1992 canceled an election the Islamic Salvation Front, an Islamist party, appeared poised to win after the first round of voting.

"I don't think you can make peace if you try to eliminate those who have the support of the population," he added.

Asked if conservative Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could make peace with the Palestinians, Ahtisaari chuckled and said: "How about Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger and China?"

Former President Richard Nixon, and his secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, broke a quarter-century U.S. policy of isolating China by visiting Beijing in 1972.

"I am not saying that Netanyahu is Nixon but -- just to draw the parallel -- it would be foolish for us to say that this government can't do anything," he said.

PEACEMAKER

Ahtisaari, who was president of Finland from 1994 to 2000, won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for helping to bring peace to places as far-flung as Kosovo, Namibia and Indonesia's Aceh province.

In his speech accepting the award, Ahtisaari said he hoped U.S. President Barack Obama would delve into solving the Arab-Israeli conflict in his first year in office.

"Peace is a question of will. All conflicts can be settled," he said at the time.

Critics accused former President George W. Bush of neglecting the conflict for much of his presidency only to launch a failed push to bring about a settlement in his last year in office.

Obama got off to a fast start, naming former U.S. Senator George Mitchell a special envoy on his second full day in office and quickly sending him to the region. Mitchell returns next week for his first visit since Netanyahu formed a government.

Asked how to resolve the conflict with al Qaeda, Ahtisaari said festering problems in the Middle East, Afghanistan, South Asia and elsewhere had to be tackled.

"In order to be able to create the conditions for dealing with the problems that we are facing at the moment, you have to move on the whole region," he said. "There are a lot of people here I know in the new administration who think (this way)."

He also said the world had to reduce poverty, saying this would help deprive militant organizations of their foot soldiers and reduce the appeal of their ideology.

"If you live (on) less than two dollars a day, how much freedom of choice does a person have? Not terribly much," Ahtisaari said, adding that if young people could not find jobs "you might as well give them the address for the (nearest) suicide bomber recruitment center."

(Editing by Chris Wilson)

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