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Middle East: Does Hamas Victory Mean End To Road Map?

(epa) Since 2002, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been following what's known as the "road  map" for peace, under which the Palestinians carry out certain reforms and Israel accepts the creation of  a sovereign Palestine. The initiative is supported by a group known as the Quartet: the United States,  Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations. But can this road map be followed now that  Palestinian voters have given Hamas a majority in their parliament? After all, both Washington  and the EU have formally designated Hamas as a terrorist organization and therefore won't deal with them.

WASHINGTON, 27 January 2006 (RFE/RL) - U.S. President George W. Bush made it clear on 26 January that his administration can't accept Hamas as part of the Middle East peace process as long as it rejects Israel's right to exist.

"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. And I know you can't be a partner in peace if your party has got an armed wing."

Bush's comment at a White House news conference seems to put the road map in jeopardy. How can it survive if both the United States and the EU recognize Hamas only as a terrorist organization? And without the participation of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, how can the two make peace?" Bush said.
"When groups are outside the decision-making process, they tend to be more radical. And once they are in positions of authority and power, then they have a tendency to act more responsibly. And I think that would be the case for Hamas."

The EU may soften its attitude to Hamas, but the United States probably will not, according to Leon Fuerth, who was a senior member of the U.S. National Security Council during the presidency of Bill Clinton in the 1990s. Fuerth said that a further complication is the current status of the Israeli leadership, with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon disabled by a stroke, and Ehud Olmert serving -- for now at least -- only as acting prime minister.

What all this, plus the Hamas victory, might mean for the fate of the road map, and for the wider peace process, Fuerth said, is hard to tell. If it's not already dead, it's at least temporarily out of commission. He noted that the Hamas leadership will have to take its cue from the people who gave them a majority in the Palestinian parliament. And determining their intent, he added, is the crucial question.

"This vote partly reflects complete disgust with the corruption that many Palestinians felt had become the hallmark of Fatah. And so it's a protest vote. The question is, to what extent is it also a vote for never accepting a peaceful negotiated resolution of the issue and never accepting the right of Israel to exist," Fuerth said.

In any case, Fuerth expects the new Palestinian political leaders will take office citing a mandate to reject peace with Israel because to deviate from that stand -- at least at the start -- would be politically dangerous.

But Fuerth notes that by ousting a corruption-tainted Fatah from power, Palestinian voters showed they expect good governance, and therefore Hamas will feel the need to attend to the mechanics of the state and its economy. To some extent, he said, that means some contact -- economic if not political contact -- with Israel.

"In government, they've got to produce," he said. "They have to grow the economy, they have to do all sorts of things, and there's a limit to how much they can blame [economic] stagnancy on Israel. Of course, that limit is partially determined by the willingness of the Palestinian people to accept that line [blaming Israel if their economy stagnates] rather than come to the conclusion that Hamas's policy is not good for them."

Flexibility On Both Sides Needed

This onus of change should not be put solely on Hamas and the Palestinians, according to Murhaf Jouejati, the director of Middle East Studies at George Washington University in Washington.

Jouejati acknowledges that Israel has made concessions under the road map, but tends to be rigid in negotiations. He said it is important for Israel to demonstrate good will -- and help draw out similar good will from Hamas -- by easing its positions, particularly on such issues as security and Israeli settlements in Palestinian areas.

"Israel would have to be a flexible negotiator so as to bring down the maximalist [militant] Hamas positions," Jouejati said. "If, on the other hand, Israeli negotiators are inflexible in their negotiations with the Palestinians, then Hamas would continue maintaining its radical stances. Which way it goes, I think, depends on the position Israel takes."

Jouejati, a native of Syria, said the road map, and the overall peace process is essential to bringing stability to the broader Middle East. And he expects the leaders of Hamas understand that it is in their people's interest to stay with the plan. As a result, he expects some softening of Hamas' attitude toward Israel eventually.

"When groups are outside the decision-making process, they tend to be more radical. And once they are in positions of authority and power, then they have a tendency to act more responsibly. And I think that would be the case for Hamas. So flexibility is not required of only Israel, but Hamas is also going to have to moderate itself so that the talks with Israel can continue," Jouejati said.

Under moderate President Mahmud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority has received significant financial aid from around the world. Jouejati said he expects some of this support to stop -- especially from the West -- unless Hamas accepts Israel. He said this loss may be offset by increased contributions from Iran. But he said Syria probably can't afford to help.

For his part, Fuerth said he doubts the Palestinian Authority will lose much in the way of financial aid. But he stressed that the Palestinian economy may suffer if Hamas doesn't cooperate with their neighbors, the Israelis.