- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, won the majority vote in Wednesday’s parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas’ victory sets a new Middle East reality that cannot be ignored. One that must not be ignored.

Hamas’ victory demonstrates that more than half of the 1.3 million eligible voters in the Palestinian territories favored the Islamist movement over Fatah, though the majority of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza never tended to be overly religious. In fact, since the early days of the Palestinian resistance, most groups (except Fatah) leaned more toward the left, even the far left, such as the Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. Today, they come in last.

But far more surprising is Fatah’s extremely poor results. Until Wednesday, the group founded by Yasser Arafat was the backbone of the Palestine Authority. Fatah’s leaders can only blame themselves. Years of corruption caught up with them.

Shortly after the earth-shattering results became known, Prime Minister Ahmad Qureia submitted the resignation of his Cabinet to President Mahmoud Abbas, calling on Hamas to form the next government.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zahri said his group won 70 seats in the 132-member parliament ending more that four decades of Fatah’s dominance over Palestinian politics. “Hamas won 44 of the 66 seats allocated to candidates on the constituency level and 45 percent of the seats contested by lists at the national level,” Abu Zahri told United Press International.

He said Hamas won all seats in the constituencies of Gaza city and north Gaza, two of three seats allocated to central Gaza and three of the five seats representing the city of Khan Younes, all three seats in Rafah.

Abu Zahri affirmed what Jerusalem, Washington and Abu Mazen dreaded to hear, that Hamas defeated Fatah, backbone of the Palestinian Authority.

Hamas said it will be consulting with Abbas and Fatah to lay the ground for political partnership in the next phase.

Abu Zahri called on the international community to respect the elections’ result reflecting the free choice of the Palestinian people in favor of Hamas, which he said will seek to carry out its political and reform program announced in the campaign.

Hundreds of thousands of Palestinians cast their ballots Wednesday in Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Official sources said the turnout was 77.9 percent. The final election results are expected to be announced Thursday by the Palestinian Central Election Commission. If Hamas is confirmed the winner, the Islamic group will form the next government, which might reshape the Middle East peace process.

In an interview, a Hamas official some five years ago admitted he believed Hamas would never win the majority in the Palestinian Authority. “I am very realistic about the situation,” admitted Usama Hamdan, during an interview in Beirut. “I know that the Palestinians are not all going to turn suddenly religious. The most we can hope for is to win about 40 percent of the vote, and have our say in running the government.”

Hamas’ new victory will upset the established order (and I use the term “order” very loosely.) However, it will present a new dilemma to the Bush administration that has been calling for democratic reforms in the Middle East and cannot ignore the outcome of a democratic election.

The new reality places Israel and the United States in a tough position: refuse to negotiate with Hamas, and in doing so, shun the democratic process, or negotiate with a group that has vowed Israel’s destruction.

As Hamas enters the government it will have to metamorphose from a guerrilla movement into a political entity. Its leaders will feel the responsibility of governance and, just as importantly, they can be held accountable for future terror attacks in Israel. They can no longer hide behind the excuse that part of their decisionmaking process is in Damascus.

Israel says it will not negotiate with Hamas because it is a terrorist group sworn to Israel’s destruction. A quick look at history shows the region is filled with deals and handshakes between former terrorists and those who wished to hang them.

However, Hamas, encouraged by its electoral victory, must show political maturity and demonstrate it can make the transition from militancy (read acts of terrorism) to joining the political process in helping build the PA. A first step should be removing the clause from their constitution calling for the destruction of Israel. That alone will encourage Washington to “do business with Hamas.”

Indeed, shunning and ignoring Hamas will only help radicalize it and invite Iranian interference in Palestinian politics. If turned away by Israel and the U.S., Hamas will turn to its natural ally, Iran. We don’t need another “Cuba” in the Middle East.

Israel will object, but for its own security having Hamas sitting across a negotiating table — no matter now much disdain the Israelis may have in negotiating with Hamas — remains far better than having Hamas on the other side of the barrier/wall/fence plotting the next attack.

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International. Samar Kadi in Beirut contributed to this report.

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