Sheik Ahmed Yassin, jailed spiritual leader of the Hamas Islamic movement, is pushing for the militant group to stop its military attacks on Israelis and to compete in Palestinian elections, an Israeli lawmaker said Thursday.
Yassin still opposes the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace accord in principle but acknowledges that it has changed political reality, said Taleb Sanna, a member of Parliament from the Arab Democracy Party.
"I feel very optimistic after meeting with Sheik Yassin, who made clear to me that the Oslo [peace] accord is the new reality which must be respected," Sanna said. "He told me that he feared that a continuation of military attacks on Israel would lead to conflict in the streets among Palestinians."
Sanna met Wednesday with the partly paralyzed Yassin, who has been held in an Israeli jail since 1989.
Yassin reportedly said he has approved a 16-point draft agreement reached between Hamas and the Palestine Liberation Organization that is due to be finalized next month in Sudan during a summit between Hamas and PLO leaders.
A Hamas-PLO accord would be a political triumph for PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, neutralizing his most important opposition as he prepares to expand Palestinian self-rule in the West Bank and hold elections for a Palestinian self-governing council.
Palestinian political analysts say that once Hamas decides to join the political process, it will be nearly impossible for any of the smaller, left-wing opposition groups to sit out the elections.
If all the opposition groups opt to compete, Arafat will have succeeded in redefining the rules of Palestinian politics. He will have forced the various factions into a test of political strength that Palestinian analysts say he is bound to win.
"Arafat is in very good shape," said Khalil Shikaki, a political scientist who conducts public opinion polls for an independent think tank in the West Bank city of Nablus. "Nobody can compete with him in the presidential elections, and his organization, Fatah, stands to do very well in the elections for the legislative council."
Arafat has said he hopes to hold elections before Jan. 22.
Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip will elect a self-governing council and a president of the Palestinian Authority. It will be the first time Palestinians have had a national elected legislature and president.
Shikaki said Hamas' efforts to reach an accord with Arafat are based on a hard political calculation that their only chance for surviving as a political opposition lies in competing in the elections.
"They have been looking at our public opinion polls," he said.
Both Shikaki and other Palestinian pollsters now predict that Hamas probably would capture only about 10% of the vote, although Hamas leaders insist that their share will be more like 30%.
Other opposition groups are in danger of disappearing altogether, political analyst Ghassan Khatib said.
"The opposition is in crisis," said Khatib, who is a leader of the pro-Communist Palestine People's Party.
"At the beginning of the peace process, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine had the support of 10% of the prospective voters," Khatib said. "Now, they are at 3%. Hamas started with 25% and came down to 10%. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine is almost disappearing. It is at 0.4%--statistically insignificant."
Opposition parties have blamed Arafat's autocratic tendencies, their own failure to unite or even Hamas' dominance for the desertion of their supporters.
But one Palestinian commentator, journalist Hamdi Farraj, dismissed the opposition's explanations as meaningless.
"The opposition failed to feel the pulse of the Palestinian people, who are looking to have peace even though it is not a just peace, as is Oslo," Farraj said.
Only the Palestine People's Party has made a formal decision to participate.
But Mohammed Jadallah, a leader of the Marxist Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and other opposition members say the DFLP and its twin, the PFLP, are likely to decide by early November to compete in the elections.
"After all, what is a political party if it does not participate in politics?" Jadallah asked.
Jadallah acknowledges that the opposition parties have lost thousands of supporters in the two years since the Oslo accord was signed in Washington by Israel and the PLO.
He says Palestinians are vainly hoping that the negotiating process will produce the state they have dreamed of for decades.
Hamas, the DFLP and the PFLP all rejected the accord and said they still believe that the only way to liberate all of Palestine is through armed force.
Israel has pushed Arafat for nearly two years to disarm all three organizations, and has particularly focused on Hamas, which has carried out a series of devastating bombing and shooting attacks on Israeli soldiers and civilians.
After first trying to persuade the group to tone down its opposition, Arafat began arresting its leaders several months ago. Eventually, he began publicly blaming Hamas for slowing down the expansion of Palestinian self-rule through its attacks on Israelis, who reacted to each attack by closing off the West Bank and Gaza and preventing thousands of Palestinian breadwinners from working in Israel.