Hamas pressured to pursue peace
Hamas was under mounting pressure to renounce violence on Friday after its shock election win as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas said he would ask the radical Islamist movement Hamas to form a new government.
The sensational victory for the Islamist movement in Wednesday’s election has thrown prospects for Middle East peacemaking into turmoil and triggered alarm in Israel and across the world.
“I have not asked anybody so far to form the government but we are leading towards contacts and consultations with all the blocs in parliament. Of course, I am going to ask the majority party to form the government,” Abbas told reporters.
Israel, which pulled out of Hamas’s Gaza Strip stronghold last year, tried to swallow the implications of victory for a group which refuses to recognise its right to exist and has carried out scores of suicide attacks.
Despite the ballot-box endorsement of Hamas’s militant tactics, Abbas said he remained committed to reaching peace with Israel through negotiations.
“I am determined to implement the programme on which I was elected,” Abbas said in a televised address. “It is a programme which is based on negotiations as a means to reach a peaceful resolution to the conflict with Israel.”
Abbas confirmed that he would ask Hamas to form a new government.
“Of course, I am going to ask the majority party to form the government,” he told reporters.
Ismail Haniya, Hamas’s top candidate in the election which saw the movement win 76 of the 132 seats in Parliament, said he would meet Abbas in the next few days to discuss forming a “political partnership”.
While Hamas will now almost certainly head up the government, its areas of responsibility would be limited to domestic issues such as health, education and unemployment.
Peace negotiations, already frozen for many months, and foreign policy will essentially remain within the remit of Abbas.
Deputies said the new government would likely allow Abbas to take the lead on peace negotiations.
“I do not think that there will be any interference between the president’s prerogatives and those of the next prime minister as the basic law clearly defines the role between the two,” said the outgoing deputy speaker of the Parliament, Hassan Khreisheh.
Outgoing independent MP Azmi Shuebi added that the “prime minister is responsible for domestic policy while foreign policy is in the president’s hands”.
The leadership of Hamas, whose charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, issued contrasting statements during the campaign about how they would try to bring peace to the region.
However they all maintained the “right” to pursue armed conflict at the same time as embracing parliamentary democracy for the first time.
Despite being behind the majority of attacks during a five-year Palestinian uprising, Hamas has carried out no bombings for more than a year.
Yet international players in the stalled peace process made clear that Hamas would need to do more than hold fire if it wanted legitimacy.
The diplomatic “quartet” behind a peace plan known as the roadmap urged Hamas to not only renounce violence but also accept Israel’s right to exist.
The quartet issued its statement after a conference call of United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana and external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.
“A two-state solution to the conflict requires all participants in the democratic process to renounce violence and terror, accept Israel’s right to exist, and disarm, as outlined in the roadmap,” which targets the creation of a Palestinian state alongside a secure Israel.
The result confronted Israel’s Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert with his first major crisis since assuming the reins of power from coma-stricken Ariel Sharon on January 4.
After Olmert discussed the result with senior political and defence officials, the government stated it would “not negotiate with a Palestinian administration if its members include an armed terrorist organisation that calls for the destruction of the state of Israel”.
Olmert himself faces an election on March 28, aware his Kadima party’s lead in the polls could be whittled away if the situation on the ground unravels.
Right-wing opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu said the victory for Hamas was a result of Israel’s unilateral pullout over the summer from the Gaza Strip “which communicated weakness and that Hamas’ terror works”.
While violence on election day was minimal, armed clashes between Hamas and Fatah supporters in Gaza highlighted the lingering tensions. Three people were taken to hospital after the clashes in the southern town of Khan Yunis.
“Even in Fatah’s worst nightmares and Hamas’s best dreams, the earthquake that took place could not have been predicted,” the Palestinian newspaper al-Ayyam.
‘The democratic voice of the Palestinian people has been heard’
Meanwhile, the world’s press reacted with trepidation on Friday and warned the West it had no choice but to engage with the radical Islamic movement.
The papers worried how this “democratic tsunami” would affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And they stressed that hardliners in the West and Israel were partly to blame for Hamas’ rise to power.
“Danger of civil war or danger of war full stop,” France’s right-wing Figaro predicted gloomily. “A very perilous transition has begun.”
Commentators said Wednesday’s political thunderbolt was more a protest against Fatah and the failing peace process than a vote for Hamas’ policy of destroying Israel.
“Hamas’ victory stems from the fact that the Middle East crisis has been badly handled for the past 20 years,” said Austria’s left-wing Der Standard.
It blamed “the Palestinian Authority, which allowed itself to be corrupted; the European Commission, which pumped money into the Territories without worrying how it was used; and Israel, which supported the Islamic fundamentalists during the first Intifada, in order to weaken [the late Fatah leader] Yasser Arafat”.
“Israeli hardliners can blame themselves as well,” said the New York Times. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon had refused to give Fatah leader Mahmud Abbas “any concession that he could point to as an achievement”.
Emirati newspaper al-Khaleej said Hamas’ win was a response to the Israeli “occupation and its terrorism” and a peace process “which brought blackmail and painful concessions that nearly compromised every Palestinian right”.
Hamas’ success was “a snub for [US President George] Bush and his strategy of promoting democracy in the region”, said France’s La Republique du Centre.
“All the recent elections in the Middle East have confirmed the growing power of Islamists, who have been the prime beneficiaries of democratisation.”
Excepting Moscow’s Kommersant and Bulgaria’s Dnevik, newspapers insisted that if the West advocated democracy it must live with the results.
“The mixed feelings of the rest of the world ... are irrelevant. The democratic voice of the Palestinian people has been heard. And we must now deal with the new reality,” said Britain’s centre-left Independent.
The press saw major challenges ahead for Hamas, Israel and the world.
Hamas would come under pressure to end violence, restore order in the Gaza Strip and recognise Israel’s right to exist “not only from Western governments and aid donors but from its own constituents”, the Washington Post predicted.
Hamas had been able, while in opposition, “to exercise a veto over peace talks with Israel while avoiding disarmament and wider responsibility”. Now it would have to decide between democracy and violence, it said.
Sweden’s Dagens Nyheter saw hope: “Hamas had already toned down its rhetoric, respected a ceasefire and, where in power, already cooperated with the Israeli authorities on a daily basis.”
“It won’t be the first time in history that a hardline movement has returned to more moderate positions when faced with the trials of governing,” added France Soir.
Hamas’ first test would be the Israeli election in March, said France’s left-wing Liberation. It pointed out that Hamas’ suicide attacks before the 1996 Israeli election had handed victory on a plate to the hawkish Binyamin Netanyahu, who is again seeking to become Israel’s prime minister.
Many papers urged the international community to seize new opportunities for peace building.
But the New York Times, usually strongly critical of Bush’s foreign policy, said the president was “absolutely right” in refusing to deal with Hamas as long as it calls for the destruction of Israel.
Others called for the West to engage Hamas in order to encourage it to abandon violence.
“In practical terms there is much to be said for engaging with Hamas, in the hope of steering it towards the renunciation of violence,” said Britain’s right-wing Daily Telegraph.
“It is urgent to adapt peace diplomacy to the new reality, even if that means negotiating with radicals and terrorists,” said Portugal’s Correio da Manha. “Negotiate does not mean give in,” it insisted.
Some editorial writers had tough words for Israel and its main ally the United States.
Hamas must commit to negotiations with Israel. In return Israel must honour its obligations under the peace roadmap, “including the cessation of all settlement activity”, Britain’s centre-left Guardian said.
London’s Financial Times was optimistic “that the increasingly pragmatic Islamists can deliver a stability Fatah never could”.
But it warned that could not happen if Israel “continues with its project to fix unilaterally new borders for an enlarged Israeli state at Palestinian expense”.
“We will not accept Israel and the United States using the outcome of the election as an excuse, yet again, to explain away the absence of a genuine peace process,” warned Norway’s leading paper Aftenposten. - AFP