- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 26, 2006

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia tendered his resignation yesterday after Hamas scored a landslide victory over his Fatah party in parliamentary elections, marking a historic shift in the Middle East that empowers an Islamist party branded a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and Europe.

Hamas won 76 of 132 seats in the parliament, compared with 43 seats for Fatah, a stunning electoral performance that flew in the face of every pre-election survey as well exit polls Wednesday that forecast a slim advantage for the ruling Fatah party.

With Islamic militant politicians in a position to form a government without any partners, a crisis in relations with Israel and the international community seemed almost certain. The dramatic upheaval left governments in Israel and the United States scrambling to formulate a coherent response.

“Recognition of Israel and negotiations isn’t on the agenda of Hamas,” said Mushir al-Masri, a newly elected Hamas parliamentarian. Hamas leaders said they would not comply with international demands to disarm after the elections.

The vote means a split government for the Palestinians, whose system of government divides power between the parliament and the president, as in France.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who was not up for re-election, remains in charge of foreign and national security policy as head of state, responsible for peace talks with Israel.

But with a Cabinet of Hamas ministers likely to take charge of the Palestinian executive branch, the electoral mandate Mr. Abbas earned a year ago seems to have dissipated.

In a televised address following the publication of the results, Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, reiterated his commitment to the U.S.-sponsored road map and to negotiations with Israel.

“I remain committed to implement the platform on which you voted for me one year ago,” he said. “The basis of this platform is negotiations and a peace settlement with Israel.”

After huddling with his security aides, Israeli acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert released a statement that threatened to boycott peace talks if Hamas joins the government without annulling its call for the destruction of Israel and its support of terrorism.

“There is no doubt that — from Israel’s point of view — a new situation has been created,” the statement said.

The new situation could not have come at a worse time for Israel, with the dominant hand of Ariel Sharon removed by illness, the Likud party marginalized and new elections awaited in March.

Israel reminded Mr. Abbas of the Palestinian Authority’s commitment to disarming Hamas’ military wing as part of the party’s joining the political system.

“We demand that the PA and its chairman honor this commitment in the shortest time frame,” the statement said.

“Israel will demand that the entire international community compel the PA and its chairman to implement the commitment to eliminate Hamas as a terrorist organization that calls for Israel’s destruction.”

Hamas invited Fatah to join the Islamists in a unity coalition, but the party, which dominated Palestinian politics under Yasser Arafat, turned down the offer.

“We won’t join them,” said peace negotiator Saeb Erekat. “We’ll be a faithful opposition and we’ll resuscitate the party.”

The Hamas victory was seen as more of a protest vote against corruption and mismanagement by the ruling Fatah party than a vote against accommodation with Israel. Many Hamas supporters said they expect Hamas to engage Israel in talks eventually and to refrain from instituting Islamic law.

In central Ramallah’s el-Manara Square, hundreds of elated Hamas supporters paraded with the militant movement’s green banners to celebratory Middle East drums and chanting, “To the parliament Hamas!” A scuffle broke out at the parliament building when Hamas supporters hung up a party flag.

“I expected more than 50 percent, but not this many” members of parliament, said Rabiyeh Hussein, a Hamas supporter as he hugged the party’s campaign manager. “It’s a coup d’etat. It’s a new era.”

The prospect of a Hamas government left a cloud hanging over the future of Israel’s relations with the Palestinian Authority.

Even though peace talks have been on hiatus for years, the two governments interact on a daily basis, coordinating security, customs payments and humanitarian issues — making a total break in ties nearly impossible.

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