How Do You Solve a Problem Like Hamas?

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the new White House initiative on the Middle East will not include talks with Hamas. Former Secretary of State Gen. Colin Powell says the administration should talk to Hamas. Michele Norris talks to Cam Simpson of the Wall Street Journal about how to best achieve peace in the region.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Some analysis now of the new White House initiative in the Middle East and the administration's decision not to engage Hamas. We turn to Wall Street Journal reporter Cam Simpson in Jerusalem.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Cam, welcome to the program.

Mr. CAM SIMPSON (Correspondent, Wall Street Journal): Thanks, Michele.

NORRIS: In our interview today, Secretary of State Rice said that engaging with Hamas would be tantamount to rewarding a terrorist group. My colleague, Robert Siegel, also spoke today with former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and he said Hamas needs to be in the picture. Before we go on, let's take a quick listen to what he had to say.

Mr. COLIN POWELL (Former U.S. Secretary of State; Retired General, U.S. Army): I think it'd have to find some way to talk to Hamas. They're not going to go away and we have to remember that they enjoy considerable support among the Palestinian people. They won an election that we insisted upon having. And so, as unpleasant a group as they may be, as distasteful as I find some of their positions, I think that through the Quartet or through some means, Hamas has to be engaged.

NORRIS: Two very different views expressed here, Cam. If the U.S. were to engage Hamas in some way and from listening to Secretary Rice - that sounded that's a very big if - but if they did, how might that happen and would Hamas be weakened or encouraged to soften its stance if it were isolated?

Mr. SIMPSON: I think that isolation of Hamas over the last year and a half has really done nothing but make them more powerful. I mean, the U.S. plan after Hamas won elections - as Secretary Powell pointed out that the U.S. supported -was to really find a way in coordination with Israel to knock Hamas from power. Not only did that plan fail, not only did Hamas maintained power, but Hamas knocked Fatah from power in the Gaza Strip. And so, you know, the position that the Bush administration has taken has really, in the eyes of a lot of people here, backfired.

NORRIS: Now, we just heard a vigorous defense of the administration's strategy from Secretary Rice. She flatly rejected the worry expressed by some that efforts to bolster Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas could have the unintended consequence of actually strengthening Hamas. Based on your reporting in the region, it sounds like those who raised these worries are on to something?

Mr. SIMPSON: They're not only on to something, but I mean, that's the reality. I mean, and what she didn't say is probably the most important thing in terms of moving forward from here. When you look at Mahmoud Abbas and when you look at the Fatah movement, I mean, they're in complete and total disarray. They were on the decline before they lost the elections in January 2006 to Hamas. And they've been on decline every since.

And now, some people think they might even be on the brink of losing the West Bank to Hamas. Maybe not immediately, but down the road in the future, if there isn't some kind of coming together of the two factions.

NORRIS: But the U.S. is trying to reverse that decline for Fatah, and as the U.S. tightens their embrace of Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, how will that affect his standing among Palestinians who distrust the West? Is there any possibility that this could help him?

Mr. SIMPSON: I mean, there's always a possibility that it could help him. But Michele, I mean, the key is that oftentimes right now - you're hitting it on the head - the U.S. is so incredibly unpopular here among Palestinians of all stripes that an embrace like this can often be a kiss of death. It's not just the embrace of the U.S, it's also seen as the embrace of Israel. And that can really hurt Mahmoud Abbas as well.

NORRIS: Cam Simpson, thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. SIMPSON: It's been my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

NORRIS: Cam Simpson is a reporter for the Wall Street Journal who covers the Middle East. He spoke to us from Jerusalem.

SIEGEL: And you can hear more of Michele's interview with Condoleezza Rice at npr.org.

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