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ISRAEL: Talking to Hamas

May 19, 2008 |  6:29 am

With President Bush come and gone, Israeli eyes turn once again to the southern border with the Gaza Strip, with many predicting another major Israeli offensive.

A series of increasingly effective rocket strikes by Hamas militants against southern Israeli cities has refueled calls for the government to do something decisive. On the day Bush arrived in Israel, a long-range Grad rocket struck a shopping mall in the Israeli coastal city of Ashkelon, injuring 15 people.

Normally a strike like that would have prompted an immediate Israeli push into Gaza. The fact that  Israel didn't immediately retaliate was attributed to Bush's presence in the country. When he left on Friday, many expected the bill for the Ashkelon attack to come due, and both militants and civilians in Gaza braced for the coming onslaught.

It hasn't come yet.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert cryptically stated that Israel was "getting closer to a turning point" regarding Gaza. But Olmert faces few palatable options.

Few in Israel want to see a full-scale reoccupation of Gaza, and Israeli officials suspect that's exactly what Hamas and other militant groups are trying to provoke.

The current policy of limited incursions in response to specific attacks ultimately hasn't stopped the rocket launches. Gazan militants are steadily increasing the range and effectiveness of their arsenal and Israel is still a few years away from an effective anti-rocket system.

That basically leaves the option of negotiating with Hamas — something Olmert  has repeatedly vowed not to do until the militant group recognizes Israel's right to exist.

Despite Olmert's denials, Israel HAS been negotiating with Hamas, with Egypt serving as go-between. And those negotiations  appear to be reaching the final stages. 

Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, the main liaison with Hamas, visited Israel last week with a cease-fire proposal. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak met Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Monday  amid wide speculation that he was delivering the Israeli response.

Olmert's Vice Premier Haim Ramon acknowledged the obvious: that all the back-and-forth
essentially amounts to negotiations.

Whatever the outcome of the current talks, the  U.S.-backed international boycott of Hamas appears to be showing some cracks. France on Monday said it had been holding informal fact-finding talks with Hamas officials.   

— Ashraf Khalil in Jerusalem

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the frictions between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.

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