U.S. likes free vote, not results

 Sweeping electoral success in the Palestinian territories for Hamas, a sometimes violent movement that embraces Islamic fundamentalism, shook the Bush administration Thursday, as Washington’s push for democratic balloting throughout the Middle East collided with its main goals in the region: fighting terror and promoting stability for Israel.

It was an outcome the White House didn’t expect and hadn’t prepared for, even though Hamas finished strong in local elections last month and polls had pegged corruption as the top issue for Palestinians. The long-ruling Fatah party, which was founded by Yasser Arafat in 1958 and survived his death, has been notoriously corrupt.

Victory this week for Hamas, which is officially designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S. government, also continued an electoral trend in which Islamic fundamentalists have done well in the world’s most volatile and strategically important region following the administration’s yearlong push for open elections.

Now, with Israelis facing their own leadership crisis, Washington and its Western allies have little room to negotiate and few new diplomatic moves at the ready. The administration had spent more than $400 million and substantial political capital in the Palestinian territories in an effort to inoculate against Hamas’ brand of extremism.

President Bush and his international partners demanded Thursday that Hamas reshape itself according to their wishes, an expectation that seemed unrealistic given the Islamic group’s popularity with Palestinian voters.

U.S. hope: Hamas will change

It is the administration’s hope that the responsibility that comes with power, along with pressure from Western governments that keep the Palestinian Authority financially afloat, will change Hamas–not that Hamas will be able to change the world and force its acceptance.

Speaking at a White House news conference, the president was in the seemingly uncomfortable position of embracing the Palestinian elections–“I like the competition of ideas,” he said–while also rejecting the ideas of those who won.

“I don’t see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform,” Bush told reporters, referring to Hamas’ call for Israel’s destruction and its refusal to recognize the Jewish state’s right to exist.

Critics have long maintained that Bush’s push for democracy in the Middle East would yield self-defeating results because many nations in the region need to develop solid institutions built on the rule of law and strong political centers before holding unfettered elections. The Israelis had urged the White House, without success, to pressure the Palestinians to keep Hamas off the ballot until the group acted more like a democratic organization, renouncing terrorism and accepting Israel’s place in the world.

Since Bush started emphasizing his drive for democracy in the region during his inaugural address last year, a coalition led by religious fundamentalists has won elections in Iraq, while the Muslim Brotherhood, a group that helped shape the philosophy of Al Qaeda, shook the government of President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, a longtime supporter of the United States. Fundamentalists also made a strong showing in Lebanon.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was even more explicit than Bush in rejecting the goals and actions of Hamas.

Speaking via satellite to a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Rice said, “You cannot have one foot in politics and the other terror. Our position on Hamas has therefore not changed.”

Rice also participated in a conference call with members of the so-called diplomatic quartet–the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the U.S.–which was formed during the run-up to the Iraq war to give the international community a role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

After the call, the group issued a statement, repeating its position that “there is a fundamental contradiction between armed group and militia activities and the building of a democratic state.”

Call to renounce violence

It also made the international community’s demands clear, saying the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would require “all participants” to “renounce violence and terror, accept Israel’s right to exist and disarm.”

But the Bush administration and the international community stopped short of issuing any ultimatums. The White House avoided saying whether it would move to cut off aid for a Hamas-led Palestinian government, or whether it would push Europe to do the same if Hamas does not immediately disarm and reverse its long-held positions.

Leaving the issue open suggested the administration was attempting to hold out some incentives for moderation as Hamas and Fatah discussed the formation of a new government.

Steep Palestinian deficits

The Palestinian Authority runs at steep financial deficits every month. It functions only because of support from international donors. The administration, under edicts from Congress, is already forced to funnel most of its support through international charities and non-governmental groups in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.

Before the election, there was talk among American officials and foreign diplomats involved in the conflict that Washington, like Israel’s government, expected Hamas would win only about 40 percent of the vote. Instead it won a clear majority.

Based on its pre-election expectations, the administration was starting to discuss a strategy for handling a Palestinian Authority that included Hamas membership–not one dominated by Hamas. It had believed its strategy would look a lot like its efforts in Lebanon, where the U.S. embraces Western-leaning reformers while mostly refusing to deal with members of the militant group Hezbollah who share power.

They expected to deal directly with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah ministers while officially shunning Palestinian ministries controlled by Hamas.

But any such plan was in tatters Thursday, given the fact that Hamas all but swept the elections, winning 76 of 132 parliamentary seats.

Instead of a government with marginal Hamas involvement, the administration is faced with the possibility that Hamas could control almost everything except the presidency, which Abbas won in a separate election.

Nonetheless, Bush made it clear that Washington expects it will be difficult to make even incremental progress without Abbas.

“We’d like him to stay in office,” Bush said.


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