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Mideast uncertainty, again

January 27, 2006

THE OUTCOME OF WEDNESDAY'S Palestinian parliamentary election surprised even its victors. No one expected Hamas, which is dedicated to the destruction of Israel, to win an outright majority, but it took 76 of 132 seats in parliament. Its victory will set back an already stumbling peace process in the Middle East unless Hamas renounces violence and recognizes the Jewish state's right to exist.

Although the United States, Israel and the European Union brand Hamas a terrorist organization, Palestinians admire it for the schools and hospitals it runs. And the organization that once routinely dispatched suicide bombers into Israel has mostly refrained from such attacks for about the last year.

Yet even after gaining a clear majority in parliament, its leaders have refused to heed renewed calls from Washington and from European capitals to disarm and renounce violence. May the Hamas officials who want a government that will focus on bread-and-butter issues such as healthcare, education and agriculture prevail over the preachers of hate.

If the new government builds classrooms and feeds the hungry, it will give Israel breathing room before its own election in two months. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the defeated Fatah party, is the man designated to discuss with Israel the outlines of a future state no matter who has the parliamentary majority. Before the vote, Abbas threatened to resign if Hamas did well, but President Bush struck the right notes Thursday in urging Abbas to stay -- while ruling out direct contacts with Hamas until it renounces violence.

Hamas may find that the obligations of governing leave no room for violence. Or it may not. What it will quickly learn, however, is that any Palestinian government needs the hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the United States, Europe and Japan to function and mitigate the desperate poverty in the fetid slums of Gaza and the occupied West Bank. Maintaining a truce might prevent a shut-off of the money. Recognizing Israel's right to exist, of course, would bring in still more.

The elections for the Legislative Council were the first in a decade, and Hamas boycotted those; former Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat never bothered to hold another round before he died more than a year ago. When Abbas succeeded him, he gambled that bringing Hamas into the political sphere would put it on the path to a renunciation of terrorism and recognition of the goal of the independent states of Palestine and Israel living side by side in peace.

It is not clear Hamas will do so, but that should be the pressure point for other nations. Most Palestinians, like most Israelis, want peace. Israeli leaders and Abbas recognize that desire; Hamas needs to heed it as well. The Bush administration rightly has promoted democracy in the Middle East, but now the United States has to deal with the results of a free vote. So does Israel, closer and in greater danger. Islamists also have racked up successes at the polls in Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon, again proving the double-edged sword of a free ballot.

The sky isn't yet falling in the Middle East. But Wednesday's election results complicate a situation that desperately needed stability, and they will make it more difficult for the Palestinians to achieve a state of their own anytime soon.

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