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With a Strong Showing, Hamas Emerges As New P.A. Power Broker

Hamas, a fundamentalist terrorist group committed to Israel’s destruction, is now the Palestinian Authority’s most potent power broker. In its first-even run for Parliament on Wednesday, Hamas enjoyed an impressive showing in balloting for the Palestinian Legislative Council, with exit polls predicting it would take between 35 percent and 44 percent of the votes.

The results represent a major challenge for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ ruling Fatah faction, and no less of a diplomatic headache for Israel, the United States and other foreign powers interested in reviving peace moves.

Sworn to Israel’s destruction, Hamas has carried out scores of suicide bombings against Israelis over the past decade. Although it largely held to a “truce” declared by Palestinian terrorist groups in 2005, the move was primarily tactical and Hamas shows no sign of disarming as required by the U.S.-led “road map” peace plan, or amending its charter.

“The Europeans and the Americans are telling Hamas to choose between weapons and Parliament. We say we will pursue both weapons and Parliament, and that there is no contradiction between the two of them,” Hamas candidate Ismail Haniya told reporters.

With Fatah predicted to take close to half of all votes, Abbas put a positive spin on the day’s events, noting that the balloting passed without a hitch in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and — under Israeli supervision — eastern Jerusalem.

“We are entering a new phase and we hope that the international community will help us to return to the negotiating table with the Israeli side in order to resume the peace process,” he told reporters.

Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, took a wait-and-see attitude, saying it was up to Abbas to rein in Hamas before peace talks could be considered.

“We will not negotiate with a government that does not keep to its most basic commitment — fighting terror,” Olmert told visiting U.S. Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.). “We are willing to extend a great deal of help to the Palestinians and Abu Mazen, but they must honor their commitments.”

Abbas said he could not carry out his obligation to disarm Hamas before the election, but had pledged to do so afterward. Given Hamas’ strong showing, however, it’s not clear that the post-election landscape is any more opportune.

President Bush, for whom Hamas’ triumph challenged the principle of democraticizing the Middle East, was more explicit in his expectations.

“A political party, in order to be viable, is one that professes peace, in my judgment, in order that it will keep the peace,” Bush told the Wall Street Journal. “And so you’re getting a sense of how I’m going to deal with Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility. And the answer is: Not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you.”

Hamas’ participation in the next P.A. government is not a given. With independent candidates expected to take at least 20 percent of the votes, Abbas conceivably could form a coalition that is moderate by Palestinian standards and would relegate Hamas to the parliamentary opposition.

But even with a Fatah-Hamas power-sharing deal, the Palestinian Authority may not be diplomatically doomed.

Some experts predict that Hamas, while preserving its virulently anti-Zionist covenant, could shelve its armed struggle and concentrate on fighting rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Doing otherwise would jeopardize the Palestinians’ copious foreign aid, deepening the poverty and misery which Hamas proposes to relieve.

“There are many in Hamas who want to leave the question of ‘who wins, them or us’ to future generations, to God,” said Rabbi Menachem Froman, a West Bank settler who has cultivated ties with members of Hamas.

Hamas already has launched a propaganda campaign aimed at Israeli public opinion. One of its candidates in eastern Jerusalem, though formally banned from the PLC vote, gave Israel Radio an interview in which he said Hamas seeks peace and mutual respect with its Jewish neighbors.

One Hamas member in Gaza, Ribhi Rantissi, even speaks fluent Hebrew and engages Israeli journalists in witty exchanges.

“Look, how many Israeli parties are willing to recognize us?” he asked rhetorically in a Channel 2 television panel discussion. “Leave us alone, and we’ll leave you alone.”

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