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On Hamas, patience

February 27, 2006

MAKING THE TRANSITION from critic to participant is always difficult. Leaders of Hamas, after their shocking win in Palestinian elections last month, find themselves undergoing just such a transformation. As they try to assemble a working government, all parties in the Middle East will need to resist the temptation not just of violence but of impatience.

This is a critical moment. Hamas may govern a short or a long time, but it will never again assume office for the first time. Setting a tone of constructive engagement as it begins to address an array of tough issues offers the best hope. Hamas' moderate choice for prime minister, Ismail Haniya, has taken conciliatory steps as he tries to put together a coalition of radical and moderate factions, and he deserves encouragement in this perilous task.

Given Hamas' history of violence, however, it will need to do more than appoint a few moderates to its new government. The United States has rightly suspended aid to see how Hamas acts in the coming months, while insisting that Hamas take three basic steps: Accept Israel's right to exist, renounce violence and agree to abide by past agreements with Israel.

So far, Hamas has resisted changing its charter, which calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, but it has signaled its willingness for a long-term truce with Israel. That's not enough, but it's a first step.

Israel's decision to withhold a scheduled monthly transfer of $50 million in taxes owed to the Palestinian Authority -- nearly half of its monthly operating budget -- is a step in the wrong direction. Customs duties and other taxes that rightfully belong to the Palestinian Authority must be transferred in an orderly way.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice traveled to the Middle East last week, trying to persuade Arab leaders to limit support for Hamas until it proves itself worthy. Egyptian and Saudi leaders, however, pointedly told Rice that they would continue to send money to the Palestinian Authority, regardless of Hamas' new role. In the meantime, Hamas sought and won financial help from Iran, whose radical Islamic leaders would like to keep it from moderating its militant stance toward Israel.

Back in the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas asked for patience. Both Hamas and its opponents should heed his call.

If Hamas is given a chance to govern without interference, it will have to provide Palestinians with the clean, efficient government they thought they were voting for. In contrast, if Israel or the international community acts in a hostile manner, Hamas can blame them when things go badly. For the moment, Hamas has every incentive to avoid attacks on Israel, which would only provoke swift and unrestrained retaliation, derailing Hamas' chances to consolidate its popularity and establish a domestic policy.

Much can still go wrong, and in the Middle East, it often does. But for now, there is a chance that restraint can keep the hope of peace alive.

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