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Unintended Consequences Pose Risks for Mideast Policy

Israel continues its military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip as diplomats in Cairo suggest tentative progress in their efforts to reach a cease-fire.

Ghaith al-Omari, a former top Abbas aide, remembers bitterly that Hamas strung up a huge banner after Israeli troops departed: "Three Years of Intifada Beat Ten Years of Negotiations."

"Hamas took all the credit for the withdrawal," Omari said. "It was a clear strategic mistake."

Then the United States pushed for legislative elections in the Palestinian territories in early 2006, hoping for a demonstration of democracy on the march in the Middle East. The Israelis tried to sound a warning about including Hamas on the election list. In October 2005, then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni (now foreign minister) flew to Washington to plead that Hamas not be permitted to run, only to be told by U.S. officials: "Don't worry, Hamas won't win."

Hamas defeated Fatah, instantly elevating its status and spawning the crisis that led to today's conflict. Hamas eventually took over all of Gaza, giving it the ability to terrorize Israeli cities with increasingly sophisticated rockets.

Now, some experts say, the seeds of more conflict will be planted without careful diplomacy by the incoming U.S. administration. Abbas, who was at the United Nations yesterday pleading for an immediate cease-fire, had seen his popularity rise in recent months, but the Israeli invasion has once again turned Hamas into Arab heroes. Arab leaders in Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia -- who hold no fondness for Hamas -- face growing pressure at home to condemn Israel as Palestinian deaths climb.

"The Gaza crisis has weakened all those on the Arab side who would be Obama's partners," said Martin Indyk, author of "Innocent Abroad," a just-published memoir of serving as a peace negotiator in the Clinton administration. "Obama will have to mobilize Arab leaders in support of a major effort" to resolve the conflict. Otherwise, he said, groups such as Hamas -- who are threatened by Obama's popularity in the Arab world -- "will brand him as the same as George Bush."

To avoid previous pitfalls, Indyk said, "you have to stay flexible. You cannot know how the actions of the superpower will affect the leaders of the region. You push on one door -- and another door will open."

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