Hamas Poll Victory Tears at a Key Bush Alliance

Times Staff Writer

The election victory of the militant Palestinian group Hamas, which has sent tremors throughout the Middle East, is also opening cracks in an edifice of American politics: the alliance between the Bush administration and staunch supporters of Israel.

Since Hamas was thrust into control of the Palestinian legislature in balloting last month, pro-Israel groups in the United States have openly questioned the administration’s decision to push for an on-time vote despite fears that Hamas would make a strong showing. And they are parting company with the White House over how to deal with a new Palestinian government led by Hamas, which the U.S. has designated as a terrorist group. The organizations are seeking legislation that would tighten restrictions on U.S. contacts and aid, while the administration is trying to keep its options open.

The divisions are one more complication for the White House as it seeks to make political progress in the Middle East.


Though the tension with pro-Israel groups could evaporate, it also could escalate if the administration tries to build a working relationship with a Hamas-dominated government, as America’s European and Arab allies may urge it to do.

“We should not deal with a regime that is dominated and run in any way by a terrorist organization,” said Morton A. Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, which has generally supported President Bush’s policy on Israel.

Pro-Israel groups have been a key part of Bush’s political coalition since he ran for president in 2000. After taking office, Bush forged a close relationship with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and has usually sided with the Israeli leadership in disputes. Bush has avoided mediating disputes, preferring that the Israelis take the lead on issues with the Palestinians.

The groups consider their ties to the White House a major asset and have generally avoided airing their differences with the administration. But in their dismay at the Palestinian election results, some are choosing to speak out.

Leaders of many Jewish organizations were upset that U.S. officials pushed hard for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to hold the parliamentary elections on schedule even though Israelis were worried about how much power Hamas might garner.

“In retrospect, it was clear that this was an American foreign policy mistake,” said Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League. “We woke up with a catastrophe.”

The administration has focused on halting terrorism and pursuing democracy, Foxman noted. But terrorism should have been stopped first, he said, and trying to do both at once through the elections was counterproductive, he said.

“Democracy is not a quick fix, and you need to have civil society in place for [elections] to work,” Foxman said. “Unfortunately, it didn’t. It backfired.”

He insisted that the ties between the White House and the pro-Israel groups remained firm, but acknowledged that the elections had produced a “blip” in the relationship.

The leader of one prominent group, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity, said that many pro-Israel activists see the rise of Hamas as a major setback to their relationship with Bush.

“There’s a distance now,” the official said. “We’re not used to it. It’s not a good thing.”

The skepticism about the administration’s democracy promotion effort comes at a time when conservative “realists,” among others, have become more critical. They point out that in recent months, Middle Eastern elections have not only handed power to Hamas and a hard-line anti-Israel leader in Iran, but also strengthened the position of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

The potential rift has implications for Bush’s promotion of democracy in the Middle East, a central element of his foreign policy. If pro-Israel groups turn decisively against the effort, the broader coalition that has been backing him on the program “could begin to come apart,” said Nathan Brown, a specialist on Palestinian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Since the Palestinian elections, the administration and organized supporters of Israel have taken similar rhetorical positions on U.S. relations with the new government. There will be no dealings with Hamas unless it renounces violence, disarms and recognizes Israel, they say.

But within the administration, there are differing views on how to react to a Palestinian government dominated by Hamas, and U.S. officials remain undecided on how they might deal with the new leadership. For now, they want to leave open the option of working with the government if, for example, Abbas remains in his post along with other officials without ties to Hamas.

At a news conference last week with Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was vague on the prospects for aid and official recognition. Livni, however, insisted that neither should be offered unless Hamas met all three conditions.

Rice declined to describe what types of U.S. aid might be provided to the Palestinians, saying that decision depended on events that were “changing and evolving.” She said American decisions “await the outcome of the government formation process, because that will tell the tale of what is possible.”

Leaders of pro-Israel groups say they hope Americans will remain firm with Hamas. But they are concerned the administration might bend under international pressure to continue aid and contact with the new government. After Russian President Vladimir V. Putin said Thursday he would invite Hamas leaders to the Kremlin, Rice obtained assurances that the Kremlin would continue to stress the need for Hamas to work peacefully with Israel, a State Department spokesman said.

U.S. officials say they are eager to hammer out a joint international position on the issue, believing that would hold the most sway with Hamas. American officials also say they understand that a rise in violence or a humanitarian disaster in the Palestinian territories would undermine other U.S. efforts in the region.

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said that although he believed the administration probably would hold a firm line, “there will always be some people who advocate taking a blind eye, or another naive approach.”

Many pro-Israel groups have lined up behind legislation proposed by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) and Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo) that would sharply limit aid to any government that included Hamas.

The bill says that only basic humanitarian aid can be provided if any member of a designated terrorist group leads or serves in any government office. It would bar U.S. contact with Hamas members and prohibit U.S. visas for members of the Palestinian government. The bill is designed to tighten restrictions under existing laws, which ban direct aid to groups officially listed as terrorist.

The legislation has the support of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the leading Jewish lobby group, as well as the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, which is also a key player on legislative issues.

Administration officials have sought to delay the legislation and write in exemptions that would give them more latitude. But the bill’s advocates have made it clear they want to restrict White House flexibility.

Ros-Lehtinen said that in this case, Congress should assert its role in setting U.S. foreign policy.

“That’s our voice, and these are our [votes], and not the White House’s,” she said.