By ANNA BADKHEN
San Francisco Chronicle
January 28, 2006
"This is an earthquake in the Middle East," said David Makovsky, an expert on Arab-Israeli relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "It's hard to see any negotiations now between anybody."
Reacting to Hamas's huge majority vote, which ended the governing Fatah party's decade-long control of the Palestinian Authority, President Bush commended the election process and defended his policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East.
"There was a peaceful process as people went to the polls. And that's positive," Bush said.
While he reiterated that the United States will not deal with the organization as long as it seeks Israel's destruction, he called Hamas's victory a "wake-up call" for the old guard Palestinian leadership, drawn from the ranks of Fatah, whose inept rule frustrated many Palestinians.
But some experts said the Hamas victory is more of a wake-up call for the Bush administration's policies. "While on this end everyone is blaming Fatah, Americans ... have a hand in this situation," said James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute in Washington.
He said the United States failed to help the Fatah administration curb unemployment and improve infrastructure and to show the Palestinians that they have something to gain from negotiating with Israel.
Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the administration will not talk to Hamas, which the United States, Europe and Israel classify as a terrorist organization, unless the group renounces terror.
"You cannot have one foot in politics and another in terror," Rice told the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, via a telephone hookup from the State Department. "Our position on Hamas has therefore not changed."
A nonbinding resolution introduced by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., on Thursday called for the ending of U.S. aid to the Palestinian government if the party controlling the Palestinian parliament advocates the destruction of Israel, as Hamas does. But some analysts say Washington may need to reexamine its approach to Hamas in light of its election victory.
"We in the West are going to have to stop looking at Hamas as if they're al Qaeda or the Taliban: They're not," said Clayton Swisher, the programs director at the Middle East Institute who served as an election monitor with the joint National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center delegation this week and traveled around the territories.
"We'll have to deal with a group that is authentic of the Palestinian street," Swisher said in a telephone interview from Jerusalem. "We have to come to terms with this."
Meanwhile, the United States should more carefully calibrate its policy of bolstering democratic institutions in the Middle East, said Tamara Wittes, an expert on the Middle East at the Saban Center at Brookings Institution.
"What the United States has to do is to work to help develop real political alternatives in the region, so that the people don't have to chose between the ruling party and the Islamist alternatives," she said.
On the positive side, analysts noted, the West could now exercise some leverage on Hamas, which will be dependent on the international community for the Palestinian Authority's budget. About half of the Palestinian Authority's budget - about $600 million annually - comes from the European Union. Last year Congress earmarked an additional $150 million in aid to be channeled to the Palestinians through U.S. aid agencies and non-government organizations.
"In order to have money to govern with, Hamas will really have to make some tough choices," Wittes said.
Some experts speculate that by taking on the problems that many Palestinians found so frustrating under Fatah - unemployment running as high as 80 percent in some parts of Gaza Strip, a wrecked infrastructure, grinding poverty and crime - along with the need to deal with the international community, Hamas may be forced to make compromises. For example, it will have to deal with Israel, which provides the Palestinian territories with electricity and water.
"Before, all they did was sit on the sidelines, mock Fatah and criticize, criticize, criticize," said Swisher. "But now ... they'll have to pay the electricity bill. A government led by Hamas will have to deal, they'll have to deal with the occupier."
"This will be a major test for them, and a risky test for them. They don't want to be discredited the way Fatah has been discredited," said Haim Malka, an expert on the Middle East at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"There are no guarantees that it will push them toward moderation, but it is a chance to take a step in this direction."
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