BRUSSELS Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has faced pressure for months to engage Hamas and this week she gave Egypt the nod to negotiate with them to end violence in Gaza.
Analysts see this as a first sign the Bush administration could be tweaking its approach on Hamas, from total isolation to encouraging allies such as Egypt to engage with the Islamist group if it means saving U.S.-sponsored peace talks.
Egypt began talks on Thursday with leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad from the Gaza Strip, part of a U.S.-backed push for a truce between the groups and Israel to stop violence in Hamas-run Gaza that derailed Palestinian statehood talks.
A Palestinian gunman shot dead eight people at a Jewish religious school in Jerusalem on Thursday, exacerbating tensions. There was no claim of responsibility for the attack which was greeted with celebrations in Gaza. Israel said the attack would not derail the peace talks.
During a trip to the West Bank and Gaza this week, Rice was loathe to officially call for a ceasefire or a truce, preferring instead to refer to a need for "calm" so that talks could get back on track.
But on Thursday she made clear Washington supported Egypt's mission to get a truce, an indication that Cairo's role as mediator was acceptable if it could salvage talks launched in Annapolis, Maryland last November.
"I talked with the Egyptians and we fully expect the Egyptians to carry out the efforts that they said they would carry out to try to bring calm to the region, to try to improve the situation in Gaza," Rice said at a news conference in Brussels, where she attended a NATO ministers meeting.
"As you know Egypt is a good ally in the effort to help the Annapolis solution," she added.
Rice declined to provide specifics of the talks, but the green light for Egypt followed strong pressure from European and Arab allies, including Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas for something to be done urgently to stem the violence.
IGNORE AT YOUR PERIL
Middle East analysts say the strategy should not be to make Hamas feel more vulnerable but to bring them into the process.
"In the end, if you send the message that the game is to destroy them, any time there is a prospect of forward movement in the talks they will act (with violence)," said Professor Shibley Telhami, an expert at the University of Maryland.
He said the United States should encourage Arab nations to mediate between Hamas and Abbas's Fatah movement.
Former Israeli negotiator Daniel Levy said Rice could not afford to ignore that Hamas could act as a spoiler in talks which the Bush administration hopes will lead to a Palestinian statehood deal by year-end.
"You ignore Gaza and Hamas at your peril," said Levy, now with a Washington thinktank, the New America Foundation.
Hamas's ability to affect negotiations by firing rockets from Gaza into Israel or through other actions was unlikely to ebb, he added.
"The most likely trajectory is that all sides will simply await the next escalation, that will inevitably come, and that the new Annapolis peace process will suffer a slow and inglorious death," Levy said.
In the past week, over 120 Palestinians were killed in an offensive which Israel said was aimed at stopping Hamas rocket attacks. Hamas says it fires rockets in self-defense, and that it would stop if Israel halted all military activity in Gaza and the occupied West Bank and ended a Gaza blockade.
Before last year's Annapolis meeting, which relaunched the peace process, a group of ex-diplomats and other former senior U.S. government officials wrote to Rice and President George W. Bush urging them to find a way to include Hamas.
But Rice and others in the administration dismissed the suggestion outright.
While Rice gave the go ahead for Egypt to deal with Hamas, Washington does not want to lend legitimacy to an organization it brands a terrorist group. A senior U.S. official said the overall U.S. policy of isolating Hamas had not changed.
The U.S. hope is that once a deal is cut between pro-Western Abbas and Olmert for a Palestinian state, the population in Gaza will see the merits of joining the peace train.
"Then let Hamas decide whether they will be outside of that consensus," Rice said.
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)