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U.S., Israel, Europe wrestling with potential Hamas victories

JERUSALEM—Palestinians are expected to vote Islamist militants into the top echelons of their government Wednesday in the first legislative elections in a decade.

While they prepare for the vote, the rest of the world is wrestling with what to do if and when members of a banned terrorist group that's responsible for dozens of deadly suicide bombings take top positions in the new government.

"If Hamas wins, it will be very difficult for the European Union to continue offering help and money" to the Palestinian Authority, Spain's foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, warned last week.

Israeli, American and European officials pushed Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to hold the election as scheduled—despite violent attempts to derail it—but now find themselves worried about the outcome.

As in Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq, the Bush administration is finding that its push for democracy in the Middle East is having unintended consequences: Instead of shoring up Western-friendly moderates, it's empowering Islamist hard-liners.

Wednesday's vote to choose a new, expanded 132-seat Parliament will be a landmark for the Palestinian people on several fronts: It'll be the first election in a decade, the first since the death of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in 2004 and the first to include Hamas. Until now, Hamas had rejected the governing body as an illegitimate outgrowth of peace talks with Israel, a nation it didn't—and still doesn't—recognize.

Hamas has based its electoral appeal not only on years of fighting Israel but also on the grassroots social and philanthropic groups it's developed.

It's already upset the ruling Fatah party in local elections and taken power in major Palestinian cities. Polls show that Hamas could win more than a third of the legislative seats Wednesday, and some analysts predict that it could end up with as many lawmakers as Fatah, which Arafat founded.

What Hamas does after the election will affect everything from peace talks with Israel to funding for crucial Gaza Strip aid projects.

Some Hamas leaders have hinted that its legislators might join the new Cabinet, particularly if they're offered education, health or culture portfolios related to their philanthropic work.

Others have suggested that Hamas remain an opposition party in Parliament without joining the Cabinet. Indeed, a strong finish could force Hamas into the uncomfortable role of being held accountable for the success or failure of national institutions.

"I think Hamas is actually worried about winning these elections because that's not their role," Palestinian pollster Nader Said said. "Their role is to be in the opposition, wielding their power given from God. They don't want to commit any sins. If they are in the authority, people can criticize them."

Israeli, American and European officials warn that bringing Hamas into top government posts will jeopardize millions in funding and any future talks about creating an independent Palestinian state.

The financially struggling Palestinian Authority receives about $360 million each year from international donors, more than a fifth of its annual budget. Billions more flow in through the World Bank and international groups that are working on aid projects in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Mahmoud Ramah, a doctor in the West Bank city of Ramallah who's listed eighth on the Hamas national candidate list, dismissed fears of lost funding, saying the Palestinian Authority could get money from Arab countries and other sources to replace any frozen funds.

"If such funds are frozen, I'm not going to surrender my dignity," Ramah said.

Along with international funding, much of the Palestinian Authority's tax money comes through Israel, which collects and passes on nearly two-thirds of the government's revenue. During the recent Palestinian uprising, Israel stopped handing over the money for years, crippling the economy.

While that isn't under consideration now, Israel is debating how to deal with the coming reality.

"These are not easy questions, and a lot of them are still in flux," said Mark Regev, a spokesman for Israel's Foreign Ministry. "On one hand, when you have a Hamas-controlled community you can't just turn off the water. On the other hand, you don't want to give legitimacy to an organization that murders Israelis."

Donors already have been funneling aid through third parties to keep a layer of separation between themselves and Hamas.

"The main policy has been to pretend that Hamas doesn't exist," said Mouin Rabbani, a senior analyst with the International Crisis Group, a nonprofit organization that analyzes conflict zones around the globe. "That has had absolutely no influence whatsoever on Hamas' policies, and if anything it's also undermined the ones the European Union and United States seek to be strengthened."

By law, U.S. and European officials are barred from working with Hamas, which could make it impossible for them to negotiate with new government leaders.

Ehud Olmert, Israel's acting prime minister, already has criticized a proposal floated by European officials to distinguish Hamas as a political group from its military wing so that they could maintain diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority.

The United States could use the same formula it uses in Lebanon, where the militant group Hezbollah—a terrorist organization by American law—has elected candidates to Parliament. U.S. officials in Beirut have extensive contacts with Lebanese government officials but avoid all contact with officials affiliated with Hezbollah.

Israeli leaders say they won't talk to a government with Hamas ministers unless the group dismantles its military and recognizes Israel.

Hamas has peddled a softer image throughout the month-long election campaign, stressing its charitable work among impoverished Palestinians. But Hamas candidates also have made fiery stump speeches rejecting American and Israeli calls for the group to disarm, while citing Israel's 38-year occupation of the West Bank.

"As long as there is occupation our guns will be pointed at the chests of the occupiers," Yasir Mansour, who's running in the fifth slot on Hamas' national list, declared loudly this month from the podium of a rally in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Abbas plans to welcome Hamas into the government and then try to persuade it to disarm, although many observers doubt that such an approach can succeed.

For now, diplomats are holding their breaths, waiting for the outcome of this week's vote and hoping that they won't have to deal with the thorny questions if Hamas stumbles on the home stretch.

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(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20060112 Palestine elect

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