By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 27, 2006
President Bush accepted the stunning election results in the Palestinian territories yesterday with a conciliatory tone, saying the landslide victory of the militant Islamic group Hamas was rejection of the "status quo" and a repudiation of the "old guard" that had failed to provide honest government and services.
"There's something healthy about a system that does that," Bush said at a news conference. He reiterated that he will not work with Hamas, formally known at the Islamic Resistance Movement, as a "partner of peace" until it renounces its goal of destroying Israel and disarms its militias. But he left unsaid what a Hamas-led government will mean for the distribution of U.S. financial assistance and for American involvement in trying to reach a peace deal.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice also put on a brave face, saying "we still have every reason for hope and for optimism" because voter turnout was high and free from violence. She said the Palestinian people were "expressing their desire for change," because they "have endured governance that was, by all accounts, not meeting their needs."
The upbeat rhetoric belied the fact that the election outcome was the opposite of what the administration had hoped would happen. Behind the scenes, U.S. officials scrambled to survey the wreckage of their Middle East policy.
The Bush administration has spent nearly $500 million in the past year to bolster the Palestinian Authority and the ruling Fatah party, which was nonetheless crushed by Hamas at the polls. Against the advice of Israeli officials, the administration had pushed Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to hold the elections without delay, believing that the voting would strengthen his hand in disarming militia groups. Instead, the plan backfired, and an organization that has claimed credit for dozens of suicide bombings -- some resulting in the deaths of Americans -- is poised to take power.
Officials had no easy answers about their next step. Rice spoke with other sponsors of a U.S.-backed peace plan -- the European Union, the United Nations and Russia -- and will meet with her counterparts in the group the Quartet next week in London. In a statement, the group noted that the Palestinians "voted for change" but have not given up "their aspirations for peace and statehood." The Quartet reiterated that "there is a fundamental contradiction between armed group and militia activities and the building of a democratic state."
Rice also spoke to Abbas and urged him to remain as president. Abbas, who was elected last year after the death of longtime Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, said last night that he will continue to pursue peace negotiations with Israel. But Abbas has resigned from other positions when his authority was challenged. Edward G. Abington Jr., a consultant to the Palestinian Authority, said many in the Fatah inner circle question whether he will do so in the coming months.
U.S. officials went to bed Wednesday night thinking that Fatah had edged out a narrow victory, which might have increased pressure on the Palestinian cabinet to include some Hamas members. That in turn might have split the United States from some European allies, who have wondered if a Hamas political wing could, perhaps, be separated from the militia.
But, under one emerging theory, the clear victory by Hamas is a bracing event, or as one U.S. official put it, there is a "certain benefit of clarity in the results." European officials yesterday had little choice but to express surprise and consternation at the outcome.
Hamas, by most accounts, had expected to serve as the opposition, without the responsibility of power. Now, Hamas will face an "existential moment," forced to decide whether it will be a peaceful force for change, the U.S. official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to comment more candidly.
Terje Roed-Larsen, a former U.N. envoy for the Middle East who is president of the International Peace Academy, agreed that Hamas now faces a "political moment of truth" that provides an opportunity for creative diplomacy. He said that unless Hamas reforms itself and renounces terrorism, the flow of donor money from Europe and the United States will stop. As the government, Hamas will be responsible for the political, social and security collapse if Western governments refuse to continue to aid the Palestinians, he said.
Hamas "cannot postpone making a choice," Larsen said. The United States and its allies need "to point out the dilemma, step back and see how they handle it."
Martin S. Indyk, a Clinton administration official and the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, agreed that Hamas will find that it can no longer be an obstacle, but said he does not foresee an immediate change in its platform. He said the result might be an "ironic situation in which it is in their interest to maintain peace, but not make peace with Israel."
Indyk cautioned that any sudden moves from the United States and Europe to reduce aid -- or a decision by Israel to withhold the tax revenue it shares with the Palestinian Authority -- could drive Hamas to seek funding from Iran, long one of its chief sponsors. Iran has tried to increase its influence in the Palestinian territories.
One complicating factor will be the mood in Congress, which has been reluctant to allow direct aid to the Palestinian Authority unless the money went to pay the utility bills owed to Israel. Many key lawmakers yesterday issued statements denouncing the Hamas victory.
Abington said the Bush administration shares responsibility for the outcome because U.S. officials did little to help Abbas or to push the Israeli government to end settlement expansion, limit roadblocks, release prisoners or stop other activities that undermined his authority in the eyes of the Palestinian people. He said the result is a "huge blow to Bush's advocacy of democracy in the Middle East" because Arab leaders fearful of Islamic victories in their countries will "push back very hard."
David Makovsky, director of a project on the Middle East peace process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said "there was a lot of blame to go around here," with the primary onus falling on Fatah. But he said U.S. involvement could have been more robust after the death of Arafat and the election of Abbas.
"There needs to be some soul-searching in Washington on this," Makovsky said. "Late in the game, the United States was pressing for an election, while the work in creating liberal institutions had not materialized."