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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This week we've heard different views of U.S. policy towards Hamas, which the Bush administration considers a terrorist group. First, former President Jimmy Carter defended his unofficial meeting with Hamas leaders last weekend and said Hamas must be included in the peace process. We also heard from Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group who said the administration's policy of not negotiating with Hamas is not working.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY (International Crisis Group): Of all of the objectives that the administration has set out vis-a-vis Hamas to decrease its popularity, to decrease its control over Gaza, to promote a peace process, to restore calm in the area - none of those have been promoted by the policies that have been in place.

MONTAGNE: We're going to hear now from the administration. David Welch is Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and he joins us on the line. Good morning.

Mr. DAVID WELCH (Assistant Secretary of State, Near Eastern Affairs): Good morning.

MONTAGNE: Well, first, can you explain why the U.S. government will not talk to Hamas, which after all won an election in 2006 and it now controls Gaza.

Mr. WELCH: We have a longstanding concern about Hamas, even before the election - it was involved in terrorism. It's also very unclear as to whether Hamas is going to give anything on the issue of recognition of Israel or acceptance even of Israel's right to exist. And it fundamentally disagrees with the choices made by the PLO in the past to pursue peace with Israel.

So it doesn't accept any of the agreements on the table, including even the Arab League Initiative. So, it's far from the Arab consensus in those respects and certainly not a partner in peace that we need to move ahead.

MONTAGNE: But what do say to Robert Malley's point that isolating Hamas like this has been counter productive?

Mr. WELCH: Well, I think we have a disagreement on that and it - there is by no means clear as some of these folks would suggest that Hamas is actually supported by the majority of the Palestinian people. It's often said they won an election. This is true, but they've won it by a plurality of the vote and the margin of victory for Mahmoud Abbas when he won the presidential election was considerably higher. So if you look for where the will of the Palestinian people is, I mean, that alone might take you in a different direction.

MONTAGNE: Now, we've heard this week about third-party contacts between Israel and Hamas. I mean, there is talk in indirect ways and through intermediaries; does the United States have any channels to Hamas?

Mr. WELCH: Well, no in a word. You know, we have a policy concern about Hamas as I just expressed. There's also laws on the books that - against any material support to a terrorist organization, specifically Hamas. Egypt is trying to calm the situation. We support that effort. You know, it's a reality that Hamas is launching attacks against Israel, against the crossing points into Gaza, and it's doing so both to provoke international attention, I might add at the very moment when President Carter was visiting the Middle East, and to try and draw Israel into further conflict. An essential part of settling this down is to find some way to control that. I think the objective is the point here, not the means.

MONTAGNE: But, you know, how does the U.S. get its views across to Hamas leaders?

Mr. WELCH: Well, easily. They can read them in the newspaper. They can listen to NPR. And they can hear from other Palestinians. I mean, our views are crystal clear and they understand what needs to be done. They haven't even met Arab requests of them.

MONTAGNE: You spoke with President Carter before his trip to the Middle East. The State Department says you advised him not to meet Hamas leaders. President Carter says that's not how the conversation went, that he wasn't told not to meet Hamas leaders. Can you just clear that up?

Mr. WELCH: Well, you know, we've been on the record on this and I'd really rather not get into it anymore. Former President Carter has said what he's going to say. The Administration, speaking to our spokesman at the State Department, has given its views. I did speak to the former president. We had what I would describe as a professional and pleasant conversation covering a lot of the issues that he wanted to address in the Middle East during his trip. I did counsel him about our concerns about Hamas. I'd met previously with his staff, went through this at length then. You know, that is what it is and I'd prefer to just leave it right there.

MONTAGNE: Well, let me just ask you, President Carter says he met with Hamas officials as a private citizen. He makes no claim to represent the U.S. Government. What is the harm in that meeting?

Mr. WELCH: Well, it's not so much the harm, though I'll come back to that in a second. I mean I think our concern was what's the benefit? Many others have beaten that path to Hamas's door, ranging from other Arabs to Norwegians, to other well meaning Europeans and have produced zilch from it. You know, I'm all in favor of dialog, but dialog has to have a purpose and it has to be within principles that the international community accepts. Regrettably, every attempt to kind of stray from that has produced little as a result. The Hamas statements after meeting President Carter speak for themselves. There was not one thing that was tabled that was answered in a positive way. I think those who wanted to experiment with this kind of diplomacy will have to measure the results.

MONTAGNE: Thank you very much.

Mr. WELCH: Thank you.

MONTAGNE: David Welch is Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.

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