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Fateful Choices for Palestinians Could Have Impact on Both Peoples

Hamas’ runaway success in recent Palestinian municipal elections is raising fears of a possible victory for the terrorist group in parliamentary elections in January, dampening the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and possibly leading to a renewal of the intifada. Several key players are making last-ditch attempts to block Hamas’ rise. Israel and the United States have been trying to pressure Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to bar Hamas from the January vote. More significantly, activists in Abbas’ own Fatah movement are threatening to sabotage the election and even to turn their guns on Hamas militiamen.

Volatility on the Palestinian side could affect Israel’s own elections in March: A strong Hamas likely would hurt the left and strengthen the right, while a victory by Fatah — either at the ballot box or in street battles with Hamas — could create conditions for peace talks, helping Israeli parties on the left and center.

Hamas’ electoral strength in Gaza came as no surprise. But the fundamentalists also won sweeping victories in the West Bank, which left them in control of major cities such as Nablus, Jenin, El-Bireh, Kalkilya and Tulkarm.

More than 1 million of the 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip now live under local councils controlled by Hamas. But will the group’s strength in local politics translate into power on the national stage?

Hamas’ cause is helped by a generational rift in Fatah, the secular ruling party. Unhappy with the list of Fatah candidates for Parliament drawn up by Abbas, young Fatah members broke away last week to form a new party called al-Mustaqbal — “the future” — and submitted a list of candidates of their own, headed by jailed activist Marwan Barghouti.

Abbas’s ruling group in Fatah — most of which returned to Palestinian areas from Tunis with PLO chief Yasser Arafat in the mid-1990s, after the Oslo accords — are known as “Fatah-Tunis,” or the “outsiders.” The young generation led by Barghouti is made up of “insiders,” Palestinians who grew up under Israeli occupation.

“Fatah-Tunis,” which has held sway in the territories for more than a decade, now faces a double challenge — from Hamas and from its own young, insider generation. Both accuse the Tunis leadership of mismanagement and corruption. But whereas Hamas rules out any accommodation with Israel, the young Fatah leaders do not.

If it gains a large share of power, Hamas’ dilemma will be whether to press its social agenda or to emphasize its rejection of Israel. Hamas’ popularity on the local level is based largely on its welfare work and its lack of financial corruption.

Pressing for wider adoption of its 1988 charter — which denies Israel’s right to exist — and for a total economic boycott of the Jewish state could prove less popular. Polls show that 60 percent to 70 percent of Palestinians support the current relative lull in violence and a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which Hamas rejects.

The key question is whether the exigencies of power will moderate Hamas, or whether Hamas in power will radicalize the Palestinians.

The Arab affairs expert for Ha’aretz, Danny Rubinstein, maintains that Hamas is not yet ready to make the choice, since it currently enjoys the best of both worlds.

Hamas “can preach reform, while leaving P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah colleagues the dirty work of making agreements and compromises with Israel,” Rubinstein writes.

In power, however, Hamas may be forced to make ideological concessions or any hope of peace between Israel and the Palestinians could be lost — and the Palestinians could forfeit economic support from the United States and European Union, as well as thousands of jobs in Israel.

To pre-empt this, some young Fatah activists are saying that Hamas must be stopped soon. They’re threatening to use force to prevent the elections from taking place, and warn that they’re ready for an armed showdown with Hamas.

“We didn’t fight 40 years to hand Hamas power on a platter,” Fatah activists told the Hebrew daily Yediot Achronot.

Israel also is worried, and is urging Abbas to disqualify Hamas from the elections. Israeli officials note that the Oslo agreements stipulate that parties that maintain armed militias or that don’t recognize the State of Israel can’t participate in elections.

“Elections without Hamas means choosing a leadership for peace talks; elections with Hamas means making an alliance with terror,” Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom declared.

The United States and European Union are threatening to withhold funds from the Palestinians if Hamas joins the government. The U.S. Congress last week overwhelmingly passed a resolution stating that “terrorist organizations like Hamas should not be permitted to participate in Palestinian elections until such organizations recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, cease incitement, condemn terrorism, and permanently disarm and dismantle their terrorist infrastructure.”

But P.A. officials aren’t bowing.

“The democratic right to participate is guaranteed by law. We cannot exclude anybody,” P.A. spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeineh declared.

An exit strategy for the Palestinians could be to postpone the elections, and more and more Palestinians are advocating this course.

Abbas, however, says he’s determined to proceed in January. If the ballot goes ahead, and Hamas does well, it could impact Israeli elections in March.

A good showing by Hamas would play into the hands of the Israeli right, which could argue that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s summer withdrawal from Gaza harmed Israel.

Sharon could fall back on a policy of further unilateral moves, arguing that Hamas’ participation in Palestinian government means that Israel has no peace partner, and thus needs to set defensible borders on its own.

Worst hit by a Hamas victory would be the Israeli left, as its push for a peace treaty would seem irrelevant or naive.

Hamas’ impact on the Israeli election would be multiplied if it’s followed by a new eruption of Palestinian violence, which Israeli security chiefs say is a likely scenario. Israel’s military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen Aharon Farkash-Ze’evi, even speaks of the emergence of “Hamastan” in Gaza and “Fatahstan” in the West Bank.

The Palestinians face some crucial choices in the next few weeks. Abbas must decide whether to allow Hamas to participate in the elections; Hamas must decide what course to follow if it runs and does well.

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