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Archive for Friday, January 27, 2006

Palestinians must live with Hamas choice

January 27, 2006

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The politics of pain fed the surprisingly lopsided victory by Hamas radicals in this week's Palestinian legislative elections. The antidote to the poisons that run through Hamas may eventually flow from the politics of pain as well.

The Palestinian vote is a spasm of self-inflicted shock therapy that will unsettle the world because Hamas accords a low-to-nonexistent priority to making peace with Israel.

But it is pointless to bemoan this setback or try to minimize its significance, as President Bush seemed to do Thursday in a White House news conference. Israel, the United States and Europe should instead adjust their policies to recognize and influence the volatile new situation created by the unexpected and distinctly unwelcome Hamas victory.

They can best do that by not launching immediate efforts to cajole, bribe or intimidate a new Hamas-led government into adopting more peaceful-sounding rhetoric to clear the way for reviving negotiations with Israel. And there should be no attempt to paper over the crushing defeat inflicted on Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority he headed.

Instead, the immediate test for Hamas must be its ability to bring social order and significant calm to the chaotic Gaza Strip and West Bank territories. That is the urgent priority set for the Islamic-based movement by voters upset by the turmoil, corruption and indirection that Abbas' Fatah Party allowed to flourish. And that is the priority that Washington and its partners must now acknowledge and underline by carefully chosen words and deeds.

In their pain, the Palestinians have lashed out against Fatah and entrusted their fate to a movement that exists in large part to inflict pain on their Israeli and American enemies. The psychic rewards of revenge, which are much esteemed in the Arab world, outweigh right now material and other rewards that were supposed to flow to Palestinians from peace accords or Israeli unilateral disengagement.

Washington and other capitals will be tempted to focus exclusively on the international dimensions of this lashing out. It brings setbacks not only for the "road map" outline for Israeli and Palestinian states living in peace but also for international efforts to contain Iran. Having Hamas form or control a Palestinian regime gives the extremist forces of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad another card to play.

Even after Hamas' victory became clear, Bush urged Prime Minister Abbas to "stay in office and work to move the process forward." The president seemed to be proposing that Abbas seek a political blessing from Hamas and a power-of-attorney to continue talks that the radicals denounce as worthless.

That is precisely the wrong direction to take. The Bush administration and other governments should do nothing to obscure for the Palestinians the consequences of their actions at the ballot boxes on Wednesday. It would not be effective diplomacy or politics to cushion the Palestinians from those consequences.

The world should not move backward 20 years, to the time when diplomats moved heaven and earth to coax grudging and obscure statements from Yasser Arafat acknowledging Israel's right to exist. That effort led to Israel's 1993 decision to install Fatah in command of the Palestinian territories in return for Arafat's unfulfilled installment-plan promise to make peace.

That history suggests that there is little to be gained now from trying to induce Hamas into reasonable-sounding rhetoric or from trying to keep afloat an Abbas administration that has just been repudiated. Clarity counts in this election's aftermath.

The United States, Israel and the European Union should deal with any government that emerges from fair and free elections, including one led by Hamas. Not to do so would, among other things, make a mockery of Bush's campaign to stabilize the Middle East by spreading democracy there.

But those dealings should be carefully circumscribed. They should be conditioned on the ability of foreign powers to channel most of their economic aid to non-governmental Palestinian organizations that contribute to democratic reform and improved security in Palestinian society. Fatah going into opposition, rather than joining a faux coalition with Hamas, would facilitate this.

The administration has succeeded in making Iran's actions - not U.S. policy - the issue in the conflict over that country's nuclear ambitions. Washington should strive to do the same with Hamas.

The pain of enduring refugee status, of occupation and of betrayal by their own has left many Palestinians believing they have nothing more to lose. Hamas deserves the chance to show them how wrong they could be.

- Jim Hoagland is a columnist for Washington Post Writers Group.

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