Editorial: Exclusion won't lead to peace

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The most telling commentary on President George W. Bush's latest attempt to revive Middle East peace talks was provided by his own spy chiefs. Leaked reports showed the Central Intelligence Agency warned against his chosen strategy on several counts. It advised that cutting off Hamas would serve only to boost that group's popularity. Additionally, it said, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was too weak politically to achieve a peace deal, and had already been termed a "collaborator" by some of his own people. Undeterred, President Bush ploughed ahead, pursuing a formula that placed Mr Abbas at the centre of peace efforts and Hamas on the outer.

The initiative calls for a Middle East peace conference to bring together Israel, moderate Palestinians and some Arab neighbours. It will be led by US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and take place this spring. The aim, according to the White House's vague pronouncement, is to pave the way to a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Palestinians, said President Bush, faced "a moment of choice" between the militancy of Hamas and the more moderate vision of Mr Abbas and his Fatah Party.

There have, however, been other such moments over the past few years. Not one has borne fruit. Perhaps the most propitious was the meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh in early 2005 between Mr Abbas, then newly elected to the presidency, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon.

It achieved a ceasefire after four years of armed confrontation, and engendered hopes of serious negotiations. But the chance for progress towards Palestinian statehood soon foundered, and Mr Abbas, starved of support from the United States and Israel, came to be seen as ineffectual.

A year later, Hamas stunned the international community by sweeping to victory in clean parliamentary elections. That said much about the cost of such missed opportunities, as well as the corruption of many Fatah leaders. The US responded by cutting off the financial tap, and doing as much as it could to boost Mr Abbas, who, it claimed, remained the leader of all Palestinians. The failure of that approach was signalled by Hamas' seizure of the Gaza Strip last month, leaving the Western-backed moderates in control of just the West Bank.

President Bush's latest peace conference ploy is another attempt to underpin the administration of Mr Abbas, and to reinforce the international isolation of Hamas. To that end, he announced a fresh boost to the Fatah security services as part of a US$190 million ($240 million) package of aid to the new emergency government. Israel pitched in by agreeing to release 250 Fatah prisoners. Hamas responded by accusing the US of planning a "crusade" against the Palestinian people.

Meetings between Israeli and Arab leaders to hammer out their differences have been few and far between. On that level, the planned peace conference is welcome. But the CIA pessimism is warranted. Poll after poll has suggested the Palestinian people want peace talks. But the rise of Hamas confirms they are not willing to pay any price for this. Mr Abbas had his moment. It has now passed, and no amount of American support is likely to change that.

At some stage, Hamas must be included in negotiations, no matter its status as a terrorist group in Washington's eyes. Attempting to force it into submission by cutting Gaza off from the world is unlikely to succeed. Indeed, it will probably create an even more dangerous brand of terrorism.

Engagement in the Middle East must involve all parties, not just those deemed acceptable by the US and Israel. Until that happens, a negotiated two-state settlement is a forlorn hope.

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