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Hamas softening throws twist in talks

Secretary of State Rice, in the Middle East ahead of next month's peace talks, says Hamas has no role.

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Hamas, the Palestinian movement that months ago battled rival Fatah for control of Gaza, is now beginning to wield a more conciliatory weapon: messages of moderation.

A spokesman for Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, deposed as Palestinian prime minister after militant Islamists staged a coup in June, said Tuesday that Hamas does not oppose peace talks with Israel.

Such statements from Mr. Haniyeh's group in Gaza come at a fragile moment for Israeli-Palestinian relations. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has been shuttling between Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Cairo to build support for a hoped-for Middle East peace summit sponsored by the Bush administration.

The US and Israel had been banking on the fact that they wouldn't have to factor in Hamas, which both call a terrorist group, in the new push for progress.

Instead, they could focus on working with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah, whom both sides consider a moderate, since the government uniting the rival factions fell apart after the Gaza coup.

But Ghazi Hamad's comments Tuesday throw an interesting twist into the rush for talks expected for November, a push already being resisted by Arab states. The spokesman for Haniyeh told reporters that holding discussions with Israel – which Fatah is now doing at an increased clip – was not objectionable on Islamic grounds. "The principle of negotiating with the enemy is not legally and religiously rejected."

Having Hamas out of the political picture has enabled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to tell his public that Israel now has a reasonable "partner" with whom to do business. And Mr. Abbas has said that he is not seeking reconciliation with Hamas.

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