U.S. Learns Elections Can Be Two-Edged Sword

Times Staff Writer

President Bush on Thursday cast the stunning election victory by Hamas as a vote for clean, efficient government rather than an endorsement of violence against Israel. But it also was a graphic illustration of the perils of the president's push for greater democracy in the Middle East.

Elections in the last year have handed power to a hard-line government in Iran and to religious Shiite parties in Iraq. They have boosted the position of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt.

The vote in Palestinian territories Wednesday was perhaps the clearest example that elections do not necessarily result in governments friendly to Washington. Some analysts said the U.S. would have to rethink the entire approach.

Bush, speaking at a White House news conference, urged the weakened president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to stay in office despite the resounding defeat of his Fatah movement and to continue to work for peace.

However, Bush also seemed to leave open the possibility of a better relationship with Hamas. Though he declared that the United States would not deal with a political party "that articulates the destruction of Israel as part of its platform," he said he didn't regard the vote as an endorsement of terrorism.

He praised the election as a "wake-up call" to an old-guard Palestinian leadership that needed to change its corrupt and inefficient ways. He rejected suggestions that the vote was a setback for his strategy of using democratic reform to bring beneficial change.

"We're watching democracy spread across the Middle East," he said.

Yet it was clear that Hamas' victory had altered the diplomatic landscape overnight in a way that seems likely to diminish U.S. leverage in the search for Middle East peace.

Less than a month ago, the Bush administration lost its closest ally on the issue, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who suffered a stroke that ended his political career. Now Washington must deal with a Palestinian leadership that is officially opposed to the goal of negotiating a two-state peace deal with the Israelis.

"These elections would not have taken place in this way at this time without American involvement," said Nathan Brown, a specialist on Palestinian politics at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. "But it is not clear how we will deal with the consequences." The election throws into doubt how much Washington can use one lever of its influence -- U.S. aid -- since federal law prohibits the spending of American money by groups such as Hamas that are designated terrorist organizations. Most U.S. aid is funneled through nongovernmental groups, but the administration has been holding out the possibility that it would provide direct aid to the nearly bankrupt Palestinian Authority.

The elections also will test U.S. relations with another key partner in the peace effort, the Europeans. The Palestinians receive $900 million a year in foreign aid, one-third of it from European treasuries. Aid money is one of the most important pressure points on Hamas, yet many Europeans may be unwilling to push Hamas as hard as the United States advocates.

Some U.S. officials acknowledged that the administration was surprised by the Hamas victory, which was not predicted by any poll.

The officials cautioned against drawing dire conclusions. They said that Fatah had been faltering and that the vote results could turn out for the best if Hamas moved to the mainstream as it took on the job of governing and came under pressure from the international community that pays many of the Palestinian Authority's bills.

"This is not a short-term solution, but it could happen in time," one official said, noting that Abbas had pushed to bring Hamas into the government in hopes of moderating its views.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice likewise suggested that Washington hoped it could prod Hamas toward acceptable conduct.

In comments by telephone to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, she said, "We understand that this is a transitional period, but anyone who wants to govern the Palestinian people and do so with the support of the international community has got to be committed to a two-state solution, must be committed to the right of Israel to exist."

But Edward Abington, a former U.S. diplomat who advises the Palestinian Authority, predicted that in the absence of the current leadership, the peace effort would come to a halt. He said Abbas would probably remain in office but become increasingly isolated.

"The Americans will say they support him, but I don't know how much that will mean," Abington said.

One result, he said, will be tougher treatment of Palestinians by the Israelis, who are unyielding in their opposition to Hamas, which has carried out numerous suicide attacks against Israel.

Abington predicted that the Israelis would limit the travel of Hamas officials, making governing difficult, and would refuse to give the Palestinian authorities the tax money they collect for the territories.

He said that if Hamas gave ground, it would only be after a very long time.

"The result will be no credible Mideast peace policy," he said. "You've got a total vacuum. People aren't going to know what to do."

He called the elections "a huge setback for the Bush administration and its policy in the region."

Brown, of Carnegie, who served as an election observer in the West Bank town of Nablus, agreed in an e-mail response to questions that the changes the Americans want in Hamas policy would be slow in coming.

"While there is plenty of wiggle room within the current Hamas position, the movement has a complex leadership structure and a set of rhetorical commitments that will allow it to move slowly, if at all, toward a diplomatic process," he wrote.

He predicted that Hamas would continue its year-old moratorium on attacks against Israelis but wouldn't be able to change its position "in a way that is unambiguous and that Israel will accept."

Washington is likely to be able to postpone a crisis by continuing to talk to Abbas, "but it will not be able to avoid it [a crisis] forever."

Though Bush insisted that the election had not caused any second thoughts in the administration about its goal of promoting democracy in the region, some analysts predicted that Hamas' victory would cause a rethinking among outsiders if not within the White House.

David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the elections were "an unmitigated disaster in many respects."

He said there needed to be "some soul-searching in Washington" about whether the administration pressed too hard for the election over Palestinian calls to postpone it.

At a time when the Fatah leadership was in disarray and the Gaza Strip racked with disorder, "it seems the biggest push [toward the elections] was coming from Washington," Makovsky said.

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