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Vote Puts Hamas in Control

Palestinian Shift Casts Doubt on Peace Process, U.S. Aid

January 27, 2006|Ken Ellingwood and Laura King | Times Staff Writers

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The armed Hamas movement, which is officially committed to Israel's destruction, was declared the winner Thursday of Palestinian parliamentary elections, a stunning turn that gives the radical religious group authority to shape a new government and injects a host of new problems into the troubled region.

Near-final election results late Thursday placed Hamas in control of 76 of 132 legislative seats, a majority that would allow the group to form a Cabinet without the approval of other lawmakers.

The election outcome amounted to a bitter rebuke to the secular ruling Fatah party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which many Palestinians sought to punish for government corruption, chaos in the streets and unrealized hopes for an end to the Israeli occupation.

Hamas has been thrust into a governing role few could have imagined when it decided to run for parliamentary seats for the first time. A group whose military wing has carried out dozens of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israelis in recent years now will control a government that will be responsible for cleaning streets, collecting garbage and providing security for 3.7 million Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Hamas' victory raises a welter of questions over the prospects for peace talks with the Israelis, the fate of U.S. and other international aid to the Palestinian Authority, and whether Palestinian society can survive the upcoming transition of power without civil strife.

The election result also poses a dilemma for the Bush administration, which pushed to have the Palestinian vote held on schedule even though many in the beleaguered Fatah party had urged postponement for fear of losing. The administration has repeatedly said it could not have direct dealings with Hamas, which it classifies as a terrorist organization.

"If your platform is the destruction of Israel, it means you're not a partner in peace, and we're interested in peace," President Bush told reporters Thursday. He stopped short of refusing to deal with a Hamas-led government, saying the Palestinian Cabinet had not yet been formed.

Hamas' new role also sends a fresh jolt to a region still coming to grips with the implications of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's incapacitation from a massive stroke early this month, and it further clouds Israel's upcoming elections. Sharon, who was expected to lead his newly formed centrist party Kadima to an easy victory in Israeli balloting in March, remains comatose in a Jerusalem hospital.

Israel was stunned by the large margin of victory for Hamas, whose founding charter advocates the destruction of the Jewish state. For most of the day, Israeli officials did not comment on the political developments, showing uncharacteristic reticence that seemed to underscore the difficult decisions that lay ahead.

Late Thursday, Ehud Olmert, the acting prime minister, issued a statement saying that Israel would not negotiate with a Palestinian administration if its members included "an armed terrorist organization that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel."

Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Ahmed Korei and the rest of the Cabinet resigned early Thursday, as reports of the Hamas triumph leaked out hours before the official tallies were released. Korei and the remaining ministers will remain in place as a caretaker government until Hamas assembles a Cabinet.

The shape of the new government is still in question. Hamas quickly made it clear that it had no desire to govern alone, but it couched its appeals to Fatah in vague language that left observers uncertain about the militant group's intentions.

Abbas remains president, but he declared at a news conference that the new government would have to accept his peace program, based on negotiations toward creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. Abbas had said before the election that he would quit if he could not pursue that program, which includes adherence to the U.S.-backed diplomatic blueprint known as the "road map."

"As much as I was determined to hold elections everywhere, including Jerusalem, I am committed to upholding the program I was elected on," he said.

Abbas suggested he might skirt the new government by pursuing talks with Israel in his role as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, the body that has officially represented Palestinians in past negotiations.

Fatah, beset by internal rivalries and disarray, proved its own worst enemy. Some party members split off to run independent campaigns, in effect dividing pro-Fatah votes. Some analysts said Hamas often ran better-quality candidates than Fatah, a big factor in district contests.

Half the seats were elected by district and half by national party slate.

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