- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

JERUSALEM — Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, despite a strong rebuff from Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, said yesterday that he favored scrapping the withdrawal of Jews from the Gaza Strip and parts of the West Bank if Hamas wins control of the Palestinian parliament.

“If Hamas will win, I personally think we should not do it,” Mr. Shalom said of Israel’s so-called “disengagement” plan.

The position, expressed in an interview with The Washington Times, puts him at odds with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has said the withdrawal will go ahead regardless of the outcome of Palestinian parliamentary elections in July.

Mr. Shalom’s comments also included a warning to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to deal with the growing political popularity of Hamas, an Islamic militant group.

Although Mr. Shalom is seen in some circles as a potential challenger to Mr. Sharon in the next Likud Party primary, the foreign minister insisted that the highly emotional disengagement issue is “not something that we are fighting against one another.” He also stressed that he supports the overall plan as a move toward peace.

Mr. Shalom caused a stir when he first suggested, in a television interview Monday, that the withdrawal be postponed.

Mr. Sharon has said the disengagement plan will proceed regardless of the winner of the Palestinian contest, and Mr. Mofaz was even more emphatic yesterday: “The disengagement will not be canceled,” he said.

Mr. Shalom also said that Israel should be demanding that the Palestinian Authority help coordinate the Jewish withdrawal from occupied Palestinian land.

“What I think needs to be done is to move with the Palestinian Authority together to coordinate the disengagement plan. Unfortunately, they are not willing to do it now,” he said.

Mr. Shalom also said Mr. Abbas should find a way to prevent Hamas from participating in the parliamentary elections or, failing that, delay the vote to give the Palestinian Authority more time to persuade voters to reject the group’s candidates.

Elections in dozens of Palestinian cities and municipalities this month demonstrated Hamas’ popularity with disillusioned voters throughout the West Bank and Gaza, many of whom hold Palestinian Authority officials responsible for the massive theft of public funds and the failure to provide schools, clinics, roads and other public facilities under leader Yasser Arafat, who died in November.

Hamas continues to call for the destruction of the Jewish state, unlike the Fatah group that dominates the Palestinian Authority, but recently has suspended its violent actions. However, the group has threatened a resumption of violence if the elections are postponed.

Hamas is “scoring points because their platform is very, very strong, very, very tough, and they can do it while Abu Mazen has to give more moderate statements because he is in power,” Mr. Shalom said, using a popular nickname for Mr. Abbas.

“What I think is that Hamas should not run in the next election and that the Palestinian Authority will not let them run in that election,” Mr. Shalom said. “It’s not that I would like to intervene in their political system … but I believe if they win, it will undermine the regime of Abu Mazen.”

Mr. Shalom said he had voiced his concern to visiting ambassadors from the European Union.

“We can’t allow Hamas to run for election and gain more power,” he said. “After that, [the European Union] will be telling us to decide maybe to resume the dialogue with this organization by saying they are representatives of the parliament.

“It would be a catastrophe for the Palestinian Authority,” Mr. Shalom said. “The fact that they are running for the parliament doesn’t give them any right to have an open dialogue with the free world.”

Although Hamas is best known in the West for its spectacular suicide bombing campaigns against Israeli civilians, it has won Palestinian supporters by providing social services such as schools, clinics and food subsidies that cushioned the effect of a collapsing economy during the final years of Mr. Arafat’s rule.

When it comes to winning an election, said one Palestinian analyst with close ties to both sides, “Fatah is struggling for its life like a bleeding sheep.”

But Mr. Shalom said a win by Hamas would be unthinkable to Israel.

“Can you think that we can live with the idea that Hamas will be a partisan organization … that will have representatives in the parliament at the same time they will use their weapons against a neighboring country?”

After Hamas’ strong showing in the municipal elections, Mr. Shalom said, he doubts that the Palestinian Authority “will let [Hamas] very freely run. I think they will postpone the elections,” perhaps until after the Gaza withdrawal, which should give a popularity boost to Fatah.

In municipal elections held Thursday, Hamas won in roughly one-third of the races it contested, including Nablus, the largest population center in the West Bank. In Gaza, Hamas won control of Rafah city and the huge Al Bureij refugee camp, major population centers that together hold about one-fifth of the million or so Palestinians living in Gaza.

It was the third in a series of municipal elections that began late last year, and Hamas, which is contesting elections for the first time, has won huge victories each time.

Mr. Shalom said the plan to pull all Jews from Gaza and four West Bank settlements had created “a real crisis” within the Likud Party. “It’s not so easy for me. I’m sure it’s not so easy for the prime minister either. It took me a very long time to support it.”

When asked whether he would challenge Mr. Sharon in a party primary, Mr. Shalom said, “I don’t think it’s the time to talk about it. The election is 2006. The election is a very long time from today. I never said ‘no’ and I never said ‘yes.’”

Underscoring the turmoil within Likud, Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, another potential rival to Mr. Sharon, told The Washington Times on Monday that he was unsure whether the government would survive until the end of the year.

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