By Scott Wilson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 27, 2006
JERUSALEM, Jan. 26 -- The Hamas parliamentary election victory became a focal point of Israel's election campaign Thursday as opposition politicians criticized the government for failing to stop the radical Islamic movement from rising to prominence within the Palestinian Authority.
With Prime Minister Ariel Sharon unconscious from a stroke this month, Ehud Olmert, his deputy and now the acting prime minister, faced criticism in the wake of the Hamas defeat of the governing Fatah party, Israel's main partner in past peace agreements.
Olmert recently reversed Sharon's decision barring Palestinians in East Jerusalem from voting in the election. He said at the time that he did not want to give the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, an excuse to cancel the first parliamentary elections in a decade.
"We are talking about an earthquake that has sent us back 50 years and will lead the entire region into chaos," said Silvan Shalom, a member of Israel's parliament from the hawkish Likud Party, who recently resigned as foreign minister in anticipation of the March 28 elections.
Public opinion polls have shown Likud suffering a significant drop in popularity since Sharon and Olmert left last year to form Kadima, which polls now show to be the prohibitive favorite in the coming elections.
"I warned Olmert in our first meeting after he took office" that Hamas must not be allowed to participate in the voting, Shalom said in his comments to the Ynet news Web site. "Now we have no one to blame but ourselves."
Olmert ordered his ministers Thursday not to comment on the Palestinian returns. He told visiting Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) Wednesday evening that he would not "negotiate with a government that does not meet its most basic obligations -- to fight terrorism."
Israel, the United States and the European Union classify Hamas as a terrorist organization. The group, known formally as the Islamic Resistance Movement, calls for the creation of a Palestinian state on land that now includes Israel.
The leader of the dovish Labor Party, Amir Peretz, said at a special meeting of party leaders that "we have no intention to allow negotiations to take place with an organization that declares its intention to destroy Israel."
"Hamas," he said, "is not a partner."
But Dan Schueftan, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, said, "We are assigning much too much significance to these elections."
He said Israel already faced a fading partner in Abbas, whose leadership has been undermined by party militias, internal corruption and the popularity of Hamas. Palestinians say he has also been hurt by Israel's reluctance to reduce checkpoints and military operations in the West Bank.
The Hamas victory, Schueftan said, could allow the Israeli government to proceed with another unilateral withdrawal from land in the West Bank, which Palestinians envision as part of their future state. Last year, Sharon ordered the withdrawal of all Israeli settlers and troops from the Gaza Strip, the other part of a prospective Palestinian state. Schueftan said a withdrawal from parts of the West Bank was already "the tacit platform of Kadima."
"The choices were between terrorists, impotents and hooligans," said Schueftan, who is also deputy director of the National Security Studies Center at the University of Haifa. "From an Israeli point of view, will this make things worse? No. Will this make things better? No. Would a different result have made a difference? No."
Gabriel Sheffer, a political science professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said: "We should wait and see what happens inside the Palestinian government. But in any event, Olmert, his advisers and his followers face a big dilemma."
"The questions begin with: Do you talk to Hamas and, if so, what do you talk to them about?" Sheffer said. "I think Olmert will try to restrain the military, and try to find ways, probably not directly, to talk to Hamas."
Yossi Klein Halevi, another senior fellow at the Shalem Center, which holds mostly hawkish views on security matters, said, "Israel will now hold political Hamas directly responsible for the actions of military Hamas."
"There will now be one address at the Palestinian Authority where Israel can respond," Halevi said.
Dore Gold, president of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, who advised Sharon, said Israel would now have to maintain control of the Jordan Valley in any final peace agreement to ensure that Hamas does not allow other groups Israel considers terrorist organizations to arrive from Jordan or Iraq.
"Hamas cannot be seen as just another Palestinian political party with an Islamic orientation," Gold said. "It must be linked to the larger sources of terror that threaten Israel and the West."