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Hamas' victory threatens Bush's policies in the Middle East

WASHINGTON—The landslide victory by the militant group Hamas in this week's Palestinian elections threatens President Bush's quest for peace in the Middle East and underscores the perils of his aggressive push for democracy in the Muslim world.

Senior U.S. officials acknowledged that they were shocked by the election's outcome: a group designated by the United States as a terrorist organization taking power in voting that virtually all observers agree was free and fair.

With his twin goals of fighting terrorism and promoting democracy in direct conflict, Bush delivered a carefully nuanced response.

The president praised the election process, but stood by Washington's refusal to deal with Hamas unless it renounces its goal of destroying Israel.

"The United States does not support political parties that want to destroy our ally Israel," Bush said at a news conference.

Yet Bush praised the power of elections and acknowledged many Palestinians' anger over corruption under the long-ruling Fatah faction. "When you give people the vote, you give people a chance to express themselves at the polls ... and if they're unhappy with the status quo, they'll let you know," he said.

Bush said he hoped that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, a Fatah leader who opposes violence against Israel, would remain in office.

Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice face dilemmas in dealing with the Hamas victory.

"The State Department and the president are in a tough spot here," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who observed the elections. "I think the administration has had really a pretty naive view about how rapidly and how neatly democracy will be embraced" in the Middle East. "They've constantly underestimated the pull and tug of Islam."

Rice spoke with foreign colleagues by phone on Thursday. Afterward, the State Department issued a statement saying members of the mediating group known informally as the Quartet—Russia, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States—agreed that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "requires all participants in the democratic process to renounce violence and terror, accept Israel's right to exist, and disarm."

"As we have said, you cannot have one foot in politics and the other in terror," Rice said in a video appearance before the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. She's to meet with colleagues from the Quartet in London on Monday.

Hamas is unlikely to make a clear-cut choice, diplomats and analysts said. Hamas took responsibility for dozens of suicide bombings, but since last year has largely observed a cease-fire.

Leaders of the group indicated Thursday that they'd extend the informal cease-fire, but not change Hamas' basic platform of refusing to recognize Israel or negotiate with it.

Israeli officials worry that such an offer might prove attractive to European governments, who at times have been more open to dealings with Hamas.

In his news conference, Bush repeatedly declined to say how the White House would deal with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas, which won an estimated 76 seats in parliament, compared with 43 for Fatah. The new government has yet to be formed, he noted.

There's precedent for some interaction. The United States deals with the elected government in Beirut despite the presence in parliament and the Cabinet of members of Hezbollah, which is also designated a terrorist group by Washington.

But U.S. lawmakers of both parties are certain to demand that Bush cut off American assistance to the Palestinian Authority, further diminishing U.S. leverage.

Aid from the United States and the European Union "ought to be suspended" until Hamas renounces terrorism, said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

The election outcome is "a terrible setback," Engel said by telephone from Kosovo, where he was attending the funeral of President Ibrahim Rugova. "I think the ball's in Hamas' court."

Legal restrictions on financial support to terrorist groups may make aid a moot point.

A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said decisions on aid and related issues were on hold pending the formation of the new government.

More broadly, Hamas' victory underscores the risks in Bush's foreign policy agenda, which centers on promoting democracy worldwide, particularly in the Muslim world.

Both peaceful and militant Islamists, who want their religion to play a central political role, have fared well in recent elections in Iraq, Egypt, Jordan and now the Palestinian Authority.

Bush's hope appears to be that militant groups like Hamas, once in power, will either be forced to mellow by the responsibilities of power or over time will be rejected by the voters.

"In a more immediate, near-term sense, it's dismaying, it has to be, for the prospects for peace," said Tamara Cofman Wittes, a Brookings Institution expert on political reform in the Arab world.

But the Palestinian election doesn't mean "in the long run, a democratic Middle East means an Islamist Middle East," Wittes said. The United States, she said, should do more to help develop non-Islamist opposition forces in the region.

Others worry that the election results will prompt authoritarian regimes across the region to play on U.S. fears of an Islamic takeover to resist pressure from Washington for democracy.

Robert Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, warned Israelis this week against believing that Hamas will mellow once in power.

"There are those who believe the organization is mellowing, that it is shedding its original mission and is ready for the hustle and bustle of compromise that is the lifeblood of real politics," Satloff said at Israel's annual Herzliya conference. "Accept this analysis at your peril. ... (Hamas) is willing to negotiate with Israel out of the deeply held belief that it can negotiate you out of existence."

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For a previous story by Strobel about how Islamists in the Middle East have gained from the administration's democracy program, see: http://www.realcities.com/mld/krwashington/news/columnists/warren(underscore)p(underscore)strobel/13621356.htm

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

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