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Ex-Mossad chief says Israel shouldn't wait for Hamas recognition

JERUSALEM—Efraim Halevy is no starry-eyed peacenik. As the former head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, he believes that the world is in the middle of a global war on terrorists, that al Qaida should be annihilated and that Hamas is a reprehensible enemy of Israel.

So it comes as a surprise that Halevy is breaking with his government and much of the international community by urging Israel to scrap its requirement that Hamas formally recognize the Jewish state before it will negotiate with the Islamist militants who now dominate the Palestinian Authority.

"To demand of Hamas that they should recognize Israel as a condition is to set a very high bar over which they must leap," Halevy said in an interview Monday. "I think it's unnecessary."

Halevy, 72, conceded that his stand, which he's been voicing in recent days, puts him in the "minority minority" view. But he said Israel should take some risks in hopes of ending the decades-long conflict that has left thousands dead.

So far, Halevy is receiving a cool response. Some say he's naive. Others view his position as a thinly veiled attempt to promote his new memoir, "Man in the Shadows." Still, Halevy's stance is the first significant break among Israel's leadership over whether and how to deal with Hamas.

"You're talking about an individual who has made an important contribution to Israel," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's foreign ministry. "But he's a private citizen and his ideas do not represent the elected government of Israel."

Ever since Hamas surprised even itself by winning control of the Palestinian government in January elections, Israel has moved methodically to isolate the Islamist militants. Israel has refused to transfer virtually all the taxes it collects for the Palestinians, crippling the government. It refuses to meet with elected Hamas members. And it has built a unified front with the United States, Europe and the United Nations in imposing three demands on Hamas: Renounce terrorism, accept all past agreements the Palestinians have signed, and recognize Israel.

Halevy stands with his government on the first two demands. But he sees the third as superfluous. If Hamas accepts past deals that the Palestinians have signed with Israel, he argued, it is implicitly recognizing Israel.

Forcing Hamas to recognize Israel explicitly could prove to be impossible.

Most members believe that Israel sits on sacred Muslim land that can't be turned over to non-Muslims.

For that reason, some think that the best Hamas can offer is a long-term cease-fire in which it tacitly accepts Israel as a neighbor to a new Palestinian state established in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Halevy, for one, sees a long-term truce as the best option.

Given the chance, Halevy said, Hamas might make a better partner than former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat because the group is well respected among its people and has largely honored a cease-fire with Israel for nearly two years.

"They're not very nice people. They're not very pleasant people. They're not very good," he said. "But they are very, very credible."

Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Israel's Bar-Ilan University, disagrees with Halevy. Giving Hamas a chance to succeed, said Inbar, would only shore up the group up at a time when Islamist ideologues in neighboring countries are beginning to show more political strength.

"Why should we strengthen Hamas?" he said. "I would think that it's more important to let Hamas fail. . . . An Islamic state is more dangerous than a failed state."

Inbar is among those who think Halevy is trying to drum up sales for his book. The memoir details Halevy's final 13 years as a pivotal leader in the Israeli government when he served as head of Mossad (from 1998 to 2002), as a secret negotiator and as an ambassador.

One of Halevy's most controversial roles came in 1997 when he persuaded his government to release Hamas spiritual leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin after a botched Israeli attempt to assassinate another Hamas leader, Khaled Mashaal, in Amman, Jordan.

Halevy was Israel's ambassador to the European Union then and was called in as a crisis manager because he had served as a secret emissary to Jordan's King Hussein.

While Israel hastily provided Mashaal with the antidote to the poison to pacify Jordan, Halevy urged Israel to release Yassin. Then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed—and Yassin went on to oversee Hamas' suicide-bombing campaign until Israel assassinated him in 2004.

Halevy said he had no regrets. The decision headed off a major crisis with Jordan, he said, and Yassin could have led the same campaign from his Israeli prison.

Then, as now, Halevy said Israel should take a risk.

"It may not work, but aren't we strong enough to be able to try it?" he asked. "I think Israel is strong enough to try it."

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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