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Archive for Sunday, January 29, 2006

Some see hope for progress with Hamas

January 29, 2006

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— I came to the World Economic Forum to get away from the Middle East. Or so I thought.

The program at this annual gathering of world leaders, CEOs, thinkers, artists and media, who gather at a snowy resort two hours from Zurich, has an uncanny way of spotlighting the world's main concerns. This year, the organizers seemed to have given up on the Middle East.

In the compact conference center, where you rub elbows with a few presidents, prime ministers, finance ministers and oil magnates in an hour's time, the focus of Davos 2006 was on China and India. There was a dizzying sense that the future belonged to Asia, while Europe was bogged down by an aging population and an unaffordable social safety net, and America was bogged down in Iraq. Condi Rice appeared only by interactive video.

The Mideast was conspicuous by its absence, with no top leaders in attendance. A panel on the Mideast peace process was scheduled for early Friday morning when many delegates are barely awake.

Then came the bombshell. The results from Palestinian elections on Wednesday showed that the Islamist movement Hamas, which the administration labels a terrorist group, had won an absolute majority of seats in the Palestinian parliament. Davos buzzed.

At first, the result looked disastrous. As President Bush said, when queried by reporters, "I don't see how you can be a partner for peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as party of your platform."

I agree.

Yet, as I spoke with Arab intellectuals, businessmen and officials, I was fascinated that most were optimistic. And not because they seek Israel's destruction.

These Arab moderates think Hamas will be forced to behave differently once it forms a government. They hope that, now that Hamas has entered the political game, it will demonstrate that Islamists can play by democratic rules. They argue that Hamas can set a precedent for Islamist political parties in other countries - such as Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq - where they are a strong political force. Wishful thinking perhaps, but interesting all the same.

A panel of Muslim leaders - President Musharraf of Pakistan, President Karzai of Afghanistan, Hajim al-Hasani, the president of the Iraqi national assembly, and Queen Rania of Jordan, argued that the world, and Bush, must respect the Palestinian vote. They also stressed that Hamas must exercise responsible behavior.

"I think it is a good thing to bring Hamas into the political process," Hasani said.

"The origin of terrorism comes from isolating these (Islamist) movements," he continued. "Put these people in the process, and let them prove themselves. That's what we are trying to do in Iraq" - where religious parties won the most seats. He made one more crucial point: All parties, including religious ones, had to abide by rules in a democracy. He said Iraq was trying to isolate - and ultimately fight - those who would not play by democratic rules.

The question, of course, is whether Hamas will be interested in such rules.

Amjad Atallah, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority, says he thinks Hamas will have to avoid violence once it sets up a government and must deliver on promises to govern better. He says Hamas won a protest vote; Palestinians were fed up with the ruling Fatah party's inability to end "incompetence, ineptitude and corruption" and domestic violence.

Had there been an ongoing peace process, Atallah says, Palestinians would have supported Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas and given Fatah a majority. If Israel restarts talks once its elections are held in March, he says, the Palestinian public will insist that Hamas behave responsibly. Yet Israel cannot negotiate with Hamas if it plays the old Sinn Fein game of negotiating while its IRA equivalent fights on.

However, Hamas was chosen democratically in elections the United States actively supported. So the new Palestinian government must be given a chance to prove itself. Having pushed for elections, the United States cannot now stand back. It must press Palestinian, and Israeli leaders to meet the parallel demands of the "road map" - an end to terror and a freeze on settlements in the West Bank.

Then we will see whether there are grounds for dialogue between Hamas and Israel, if Hamas lives up to Davos hopes. If it won't play by democratic rules, it's time to exercise Hajim al-Hasani's formula of isolation. A time of testing has begun.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

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