- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

Arab and Muslim states across the Middle East yesterday greeted the stunning electoral triumph of the radical Palestinian Hamas party with a mixture of elation and caution, with many warning the party will have to soften its fiercely anti-Israel platform if it hopes to govern.

“It’s very easy to have slogans and rhetoric that people will follow, but eventually the slogans fall away,” said Saad Hariri, leader of the largest bloc in Lebanon’s parliament.

“People want to eat, to have jobs, to go to homes where they feel safe,” he said. “Hamas had better get its act together.”

Governments across the region were struggling to adjust to the smashing and unexpected Hamas win in Palestinian parliamentary voting Wednesday. The militant wing of the party has carried out scores of deadly attacks on Israel and is considered a terrorist organization by both the United States and the European Union.

Leading hard-line states in the region, led by Syria and Iran, hailed the vote as a blow to Israel and a rejection of U.S.-backed plans to forge a permanent peace deal with the Palestinians.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said in Tehran that Palestinian voters “chose the option of resistance” in overwhelmingly backing Hamas over the more moderate ruling Fatah party.

Syria’s official al-Baath newspaper predicted that the United States and other Western powers would have to drop their diplomatic boycott of Hamas in the wake of Wednesday’s vote.

“The Europeans, and especially the Americans, who have rejected this victory, have no other choice than to submit to reality and work with the new situation,” the paper said.

But other regional leaders, including Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, King Abdullah II of Jordan and Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh, warned Hamas against any immediate break in peace talks with Israel.

Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf told reporters in Geneva that Hamas should be given “a chance,” noting that Israel’s hawkish Ariel Sharon evolved as prime minister into an advocate for peace with the Palestinians.

“Let us hope Hamas ends up like that,” he said.

Some Arab commentators hoped — and others feared — that Hamas would moderate its fierce anti-Israeli stand as it faced the reality of governing.

Others saw the vote less as a triumph for Hamas than a political implosion for Fatah, the movement created by Yasser Arafat and now widely criticized for corruption and inefficiency.

Lebanon’s Mr. Hariri, the son of the assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, said his country was going through a similar evolution with the recent addition to the coalition government of members of Hezbollah, another militant Islamist movement also considered a terrorist group by the U.S. government.

“When you are in the opposition, you are always the winner,” Mr. Hariri said. “You get to criticize and you have no responsibility for policy.”

He noted that Fatah had itself once been blackballed by the United States for terrorist attacks, before becoming Washington’s favored party in this week’s vote.

Mr. Hariri met with President Bush in the Oval Office yesterday to discuss efforts to push ahead with a U.N. probe in the February 2005 killing of his father.

Investigators have focused on neighboring Syria’s perceived role in the assassination, and the killing sparked a drive by the United States and France to oust Syrian troops who had been in Lebanon for three decades.

“We expect there to be a full and firm investigation, and the people who are responsible for your dad’s death need to be held to account,” Mr. Bush said during the meeting.

The two men had “an important discussion about our mutual desire for Lebanon to be free — free of foreign influence, free of Syrian intimidation, free to chart its own course,” he added.

Bill Sammon contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.

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