GAZA CITY — The militant group Hamas, facing the threat of diplomatic isolation and a precipitous drop in foreign aid when it assumes power, is exploring the possibility of taking a less visible role in the new Palestinian government than might be expected after its sweeping parliamentary election victory.
Though the shape of the new government is not yet clear, options being weighed by the Islamist organization include appointing a nonmember as prime minister and creating a Cabinet made up mostly of people from outside parliament rather than from the ranks of the group's newly elected lawmakers.
Israel, the United States and many Western countries have made it clear they will have no dealings with a Hamas government unless the group renounces its aim of Israel's destruction and disarms its military wing.
However, quirks in the Palestinian parliamentary system, together with all sides' desire to advance their own pragmatic interests, could combine to offer a face-saving path forward, according to an array of analysts, Western diplomats and Israeli and Palestinian officials.
The coming weeks, in their view, could yield a nuanced new Israeli-Palestinian reality under which all parties can claim they are holding fast to their principles while managing to avoid a political confrontation that could trigger the collapse of the Palestinians' fragile economy and governing structure, an outcome almost no one desires.
"It will all depend, if it's finessed the right way, whether the Israeli government can perceive and extend to the public the perception that it is not actually dealing with Hamas," said Joseph Alpher, a former senior Israeli government advisor and editor of the Mideast affairs website www.bitterlemons.org.
In the Jan. 25 elections, Hamas won 74 seats in the 132-member Palestinian legislature that is to be sworn in Feb. 18. Under common parliamentary practice, the holder of such a substantial majority would be expected to pick one of its own as prime minister and to allocate itself most of the senior Cabinet positions.
However, the Hamas leadership, which held internal talks this week in Cairo, has signaled that it may opt for a behind-the-scenes role. Sources at the talks said the group might put forth Gaza businessman Jamal Khudairi -- who ran as an independent, though with Hamas' endorsement -- as its candidate for prime minister.
Shunning the limelight would give the group, whose formal name is the Islamic Resistance Movement, the advantage of deferring uncomfortable choices about its core beliefs and its self-described mission, which for many years was to kill as many Israelis as possible. Hamas dramatically scaled back its attacks more than a year ago, when it first began running in, and winning, Palestinian local elections.
The formation of a new Palestinian national government could be weeks away, and could even come after Israel's elections March 28. The centrist Kadima party, assembled by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon before he was felled by a massive stroke last month, holds a commanding lead in the polls, and its platform calls for steps leading to the creation of a Palestinian state.
U.S. law prohibits granting assistance to an organization such as Hamas, which is deemed a terrorist group by Washington. A Hamas-run government stands to lose hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. and other countries.
A major stumbling block to setting up a Palestinian government with which Israel and the United States would deal is that the defeated Fatah movement has so far refused to enter into a Cabinet alliance with Hamas. That seemingly rules out the participation of many West-friendly Palestinian officials whose political home has traditionally been Fatah.
But there are other potential scenarios.
One calls for the creation of a "technocrat" government, in which those in charge of day-to-day affairs would be professionals in their chosen fields rather than career politicians. Under Palestinian law, neither the prime minister nor members of the Cabinet are required to be lawmakers.
"This kind of outcome could give everyone a bit of breathing room," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, who heads a prominent Palestinian think tank. In addition, he said, the idea of a professionally run government could have considerable appeal to Palestinian voters who cast their lot with Hamas primarily because they were fed up with Fatah's corruption and inefficiency.
Another possibility is tapping lawmakers aligned with neither Hamas nor Fatah to serve in the Cabinet. These include a number of internationally respected figures who could make a Hamas-appointed Cabinet far more palatable to the West and Israel.