Given that the new Israeli government is an inflexible bunch of hardliners, the best area for the Obama administration to make progress in the Israel-Palestine conflict is for the United States to either encourage or accede to the creation of a Palestinian unity government.

Such a government would include both Fatah and Hamas. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have tried in the past to secure a Fatah-Hamas accord. Under President Bush, the United States said it would not deal with any government that includes Hamas. In 2007, President Bush sabotaged a nascent Fatah-Hamas deal brokered by Saudi Arabia. So the question is: is the Obama administration showing any willingness to finesse the ban on Hamas?

For the Israelis, and the Israel lobby, any US-Hamas detente crosses a red line.

At Wednesday’s testimony before the House Foreign Affairs committee, Secretary of State Clinton seemed to suggest an opening–though just a crack:

“We will not deal with nor in any way fund a Palestinian government that includes Hamas unless and until Hamas has renounced violence, recognized Israel and agrees to follow the previous obligations of the Palestinian Authority. … We want to leave the door open.”

At the State Department press briefing on Thursday with spokesman Robert Wood, there was the following exchange, in which Wood seemed to indicate some degree of openness toward dealing with a government that might include Hamas. It’s lengthy, but read it anyway:

QUESTION: In her testimony today, the Secretary seemed to indicate that there would be some flexibility in dealing with a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas. She referred to the – to Lebanon’s government which includes Hezbollah, saying – and also the Northern Ireland situation.

What kind of flexibility are you thinking of? And the supplemental language can be read in many different ways, so maybe if you could just explain how flexible you plan to be when it comes to the national interests of the U.S.?

MR. WOOD: Look, we’ve been very clear, this is not an issue of being flexible. This is an issue of what Hamas needs to do. We’ve outlined those conditions for Hamas if it wants to be a partner for peace. It’s been very clear. We will not deal with a Hamas government. We – the Secretary has made that very clear and —

QUESTION: But it’s not actually that clear. I mean, today she seemed to indicate some —

MR. WOOD: Well, it may not be to you, but it’s very clear to us.

QUESTION: She’s saying on the one hand, she doesn’t want to deal with them. But then on the other, she’s used – the other hand, she’s using examples where you are dealing with governments that include people you don’t like. So it’s not clear to me.

MR. WOOD: Well, it should be very clear that we have those three principles. And the Secretary’s made clear, she made clear yesterday, what Hamas needed to do. And our position has not changed. What we’re trying to do is to get a process going, at some point, so that we can move forward on our vision of a two-state solution. And nothing has changed with regard to our principles.

So I think what the Secretary was trying to show you was that there have been cases where we have dealt with various groups. She used the issue of Lebanon.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. WOOD: Yeah. Well, but again, there are some very strong solid principles that we have to see adhered to before we can deal with Hamas.

QUESTION: Well, but you’re not – but you’re not dealing with Hamas. I mean, the question is —

MR. WOOD: I didn’t say we were dealing with them.

QUESTION: Okay, but the question is not whether you’re going to deal with Hamas. We know you’re not going to deal with Hamas. The question is: Will you deal with a government that is kind of led by the – or a unity government? Will you deal with PA members of that unity government?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, first of all, there isn’t a unity government.

QUESTION: As in Lebanon, you deal with members of the March 14 Movement, but you don’t deal with members of Hezbollah?

MR. WOOD: Look, what I’m saying to you is that there is not a unity government. We have principles, conditions that we have put on Hamas in order for us to engage – in order for Hamas to become part of the solution instead of being what they are, which is the problem, and – you know, so it’s premature to start talking about what we would —

QUESTION: But Secretary Clinton was talking about it today, so it’s not premature.

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m just – no, no, what I’m saying is it’s premature to talk about what a unity government is going to look like. What I’m saying to you is that our principles, we stand behind them with regard to what Hamas needs to do if it wants to become a partner for peace. Hamas is not a partner for peace. It rejects Israel’s right to exist. It rejects previous agreements that have been agreed to by the Palestinian Authority, and it continues to perpetrate violence against its own people.

Our principles remain the same. They haven’t changed. I’m not going to start speculating about what we might do, what might be, or what kind of engagement we might have with some future unity government that doesn’t exist. The only thing I can tell you is that our principles remain the same with regard to Hamas.

Meanwhile, as the Obama-Clinton teams officially skirts the issue, the BBC is citing various indications in the United States that talking to Hamas is unavoidable:

A senior economic advisor to Mr Obama, Paul Volcker, recently put his name to a paper which included a “more pragmatic approach to Hamas” among wider policy recommendations.

Harry Siegman, the head of the think-tank behind the document, believes there are “early indications” that the new US government will adopt its advice to “cease discouraging” third parties from dealing with Hamas.

Mr Siegman says reaction to the document was “very positive” at a recent meeting which he says was attended by several “senior members” of the Obama administration, including US Middle East envoy George Mitchell.

Meanwhile, Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel who advised US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign, recently co-wrote a book chapter asserting that “a peace process that excludes” Hamas is “bound to fail”.

If an Israel-Hamas ceasefire held and Fatah and Hamas reconciled, the US should deal with a Palestinian unity government and “authorise low-level contact with Hamas in Gaza”, it said.

And, said the BBC:

Hamas has had more international visitors since US President Barack Obama came to power, and they seem to be getting bolder, says Ahmad Youssef, an advisor close to the Islamist movement’s political leaders in Gaza.

Groups of lawmakers from the UK and EU, travelling independently, have made widely publicised visits to Hamas’s exiled leader in Damascus in recent months.

And Mr Youssef says official representatives of European governments have also come calling – and not just the Norwegians who have long had contact with Hamas.

Mr Youssef says it seems such delegations are now “getting the green light from the Americans”.

“They are more courageous than during the Bush administration,” he insists.

In March, Khalid Meshaal, the Hamas leader in Damascus, said that he was encouraged by the new line from the Obama administration:

Mr Meshaal, speaking in an interview with La Repubblica, said “a new language towards the region is coming from President Obama.”

He did not directly mention Mr Obama’s message to Iran.

“The challenge for everybody is for this to be the prelude for a genuine change in US and European policies,” Mr Meshaal said.

“Regarding an official opening towards Hamas, it’s a matter of time.”

Several top Obama officials are proponents of a detente with Hamas and Hezbollah, including John Brennan, the deputy national security adviser. Dan Shapiro, the senior director for the Middle East at the NSC, is said to be open to the idea. Will Obama have the courage to do what’s necessary? A good first step: the president should say, in public, that he’d welcome efforts by US allies in the Arab world, to broker an accord between Hamas and Fatah.