Confused on Hamas

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

THE SPOKESMAN for the French Foreign Ministry was asked the other day if there had not been some confusion in policy toward the fundamentalist group Hamas since its victory in the Palestinian elections. Answer: "There is no confusion at all in the French position, not on this or on any other question."

Well, okay. Still, things do seem a tiny bit muddled at the Quai d'Orsay: France, after all, is simultaneously refusing to talk to Hamas and encouraging Russia to do so. Nor is Paris the only capital where "confused" seems to describe the thinking about how to handle the Islamic majority that is due to be sworn in today in the Palestinian legislature. Though they are pretty sure they disagree with the French, neither the Bush administration nor the Israeli government is clear about many of the other questions Hamas's ascendance has raised.

In part this is a good thing. Responding well to Hamas will require a careful balancing act from Israel, its Arab neighbors and the West. The trick is to calibrate a strategy that will push Hamas toward moderation -- and punish it if there is none -- without provoking chaos in the Palestinian territories or undermining the democratic process that the United States has done so much to promote. The United States and its allies in the so-called Quartet for Middle East policy -- the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- got off to a good start by spelling out three conditions for Hamas to meet in exchange for recognition: the renunciation of violence, acceptance of Israel and agreement to existing Palestinian-Israeli accords. The Bush administration and Israel have gone a step further, ruling out any aid or financial transfers to a Hamas government, though not necessarily independent aid groups working with the Palestinian population, if the political conditions are not met.

Had the Quartet remained united in this approach, Hamas might have been forced to choose between transforming itself into a peaceful political movement or failing in its goal of establishing an effective Palestinian government. But before the international pressure could even begin to build, Russian President Vladimir Putin opened a safety valve by inviting Hamas to send a delegation to Moscow. His initiative was quickly backed by France -- the other nation in the Quartet with a history of trying to play Middle East politics to its own advantage. Having broken the diplomatic embargo, Hamas now needs only money: If it can squeeze enough from Gulf states, Iran or, eventually, Europe, it will establish the principle that Islamic fundamentalists openly committed to suicide bombing and the destruction of Israel need not alter their policies to rule. That means a triumph for Osama bin Laden and Iran's extremist president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Moscow's intervention is not the only danger. Another is the temptation of the Bush administration to join with Israel, which is lukewarm about Arab democracy, and Egypt, which is

doing its best to prevent one from emerging in Cairo, to strip Hamas of its victory or force it out of office. The three governments have been consulting about ways to bolster secular Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and push him into a confrontation with the Islamists. This week the outgoing Palestinian legislature voted to hand the president extensive new powers, and Mr. Abbas himself has asserted his control over the security forces and media. While some of the maneuvering may be permitted by the Palestinian constitution, the Bush administration will destroy its larger democracy policy if it is seen to conspire with Israel and Arab autocrats to reverse the outcome of one of the freest elections in Arab history. Letting Hamas rule and be judged by Palestinians on its results will require more patience. But it is also more likely to bring about, in the long run, a Palestinian government that the world can welcome.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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