Ahmed Yousef, political adviser to deposed PA PM Ismail Haniyeh
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrives in Jerusalem today on the third leg of her latest Middle East diplomatic drive. One place she won't be going is the Gaza Strip.
Israel and the Bush administration have succeeded in solidifying an international political and economic blockade on Gaza now that it is controlled by Hamas.
Even though Hamas is penned in, its leaders in Gaza exude an air of confidence. They may be isolated now, but they understand that any Middle East diplomatic drive will eventually have to go through Gaza..
There are different voices within Hamas, but perhaps one worth listening to is Ahmed Yousef, a man best described as deposed PA PM Ismail Haniyeh's Karl Rove.
Yousef is 56, U.S.-educated, speaks fluent English, and calls the United States a "kind of paradise."
After Sept. 11, he found life in America as an Arab and Muslim to be nearly unbearable. He returned to the Middle East in 2004 with dreams of transforming Gaza into a regional Hong Kong or Singapore.
Things didn't go quite as planned.
In two interviews last week, one brief chat at his office and a second, more lengthy, talk on a Rafah beach not far from the Egyptian border, Yousef revealed both his pragmatic side and his ideological underpinnings.
His moderate message for Israel and the Bush adminstration is essentially: There are pragmatists within Hamas who can -- and should -- be empowered.
"You can actually deal with Hamas and work with them to moderate them," Yousef said. "Don't make them your enemy. We should try these things before blocking the road."
Ever since Hamas took control of the PA in free elections last January, the U.N., U.S. Israel, Russia and the E.U. have all demanded that the group meet three conditions before being accepted as a political player:
1. Renunciation of violence
2. Acceptance of past agreements, including the Road Map
3. Recognition of Israel
Yousef said Hamas is now prepared to accept the first two, but not the third.
Needless to say, that's not enough to meet the demands.
Even though much of the world, including key players in the Middle East, continues to shun Hamas, the group is patient. Its leaders take a long view of history. Like the Soviet Union, Yousef said, one day the American empire will crumble, leaving Israel without its most important ally.
"They will find themselves alone, and having a nuclear weapon will not help them," said Yousef. "It's better for them to negotiate now...Israel must realize that its a small island in a big ocean, surrounded by Arabs and Muslims. The Israelis should think about their future."
For now, Hamas sees what is happening to the Bush administration in the U.S. and feels it can wait it out.
"We can keep suffering from the Bush administration for a year-and-a-half," Yousef said. "Maybe by electing a new president they will realize that they have to deal with Hamas. We can survive. We have survived in worse situations than this. Now, at least, we have some degree of freedom."
Yousef also issued a more stark warning about continued attempts to marginalize Hamas.
"Now we are giving politics a chance," he said. "If politics fails we will have to resort to some other tactics - back to struggle and old tactics... If I press you in the corner, you have to do something."
Yousef was perhaps most strident when it came to Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier captured last summer by Hamas-led militants.
"We will hold him for 10 years if we have to," Yousef said curtly at one point.
Shalit is probably the biggest bargaining chip Hamas holds, which is one reason why he hasn't been freed in any deal. Hamas is asking Israel to release 400 Palestinian prisoners, but Israel has rejected the list.
"If the Israelis are not interested in releasing those prisoners, we have to find another way," Yousef said. "We will keep trying to capture an Israeli soldier. If one is not enough, the second, or maybe the third, maybe the Israelis will accept that."