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Peace process uncertain in Mideast
Gong Shaopeng China Daily  Updated: 2006-02-06 06:24

Peace process uncertain in Mideast

The Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas, emerged from the January 26 Palestinian legislative elections as the victor. It won 76 of the 132 available seats, enough for it to form a government on its own. In stark contrast, the long dominant faction led by the Fatah movement won only 43 seats, forcing the cabinet of Ahmed Qurei to resign en masse.

Shocking as it was to the rest of the world, Hamas' win should in no way be seen as a surprise.

The latest legislative elections were conducted in a combination of two formats: proportional representation for a nationwide single constituency and majority representation for small town constituencies. That means 66 seats were distributed among all political parties in proportion to the number of votes each won in Gaza and the West Bank, while each of the other 66 went to candidates who received simple majority support in their small town constituencies.

The Hamas movement is a religious-group-turned-political party that has been doing charity work around local mosques where its branches are based. It is therefore only logical that it would win nearly all of the small town seats.

But for the Fatah movement, which has alienated itself from the masses by indulging in complacency, winning more than half of the 66 seats in the nationwide single constituency was obviously far from enough to avert a crushing defeat when results from both fronts were put together. Small wonder then that Nahmoud Abbas, Fatah chairman and president of the Palestinian government, invited Hamas to form a new government as soon as the official election results were out.

Since it was established in 1987, Hamas has never recognized the legitimacy of Israel. Nor does it agree with the Oslo Treaty that Fatah signed with Israel, or the Quartet Roadmap Plan. Its military arm also frequently launches suicide bomb attacks against Israeli targets. If a "Hamas administration" comes to power in Palestine, all parties involved in the Middle East peace process will face a huge dilemma.

Motivated by the belief that democracy is one of the ultimate means of ridding the world of terrorism, the Bush administration has been enthusiastically promoting its "democratic solution" in the Middle East. It persuaded other parties to agree to Hamas' participation in the Palestinian elections, despite the fact that it still sees the militant group as a terrorist organization.

Having considered every other possibility but a Hamas win, however, the White House was compelled to join the other three parties of the quartet that drew up the Middle East Peace Roadmap (the European Union, Russia and the United Nations) in demanding that Hamas disarm itself, recognize Israel and respect the Quartet Roadmap, or it would completely stop all assistance to Palestine. Hamas, as expected, rejected the US demands immediately.

Hamas' shocking victory will also be felt in the Israeli parliamentary elections on March 28. Since he ordered a unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August last year, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has seen his popularity soar at home. In order to shake free from the constraints set by the Benjamin Netanyahu-led faction of the Likud Party, Sharon formed his own Forward Party in late 2005. Political pundits then predicted Sharon's popularity would be able to help his party win enough votes in the March elections to become the top dog and form a government.

The situation completely changed after Sharon was hospitalized on January 4 following a serious stroke. He remains in a deep coma, leaving all duties to his second-in-charge, Ehud Olmert.

If a "Hamas administration" that refuses to negotiate with Israel comes to power in Palestine, it might cost the Forward Party the edge over its rivals in the upcoming elections. The hardliners led by Netanyahu could then re-dominate Israeli politics and stop or even reverse the Middle East peace process.

In contrast to external anxiety, Abbas has appeared rather calm so far. By inviting Hamas to form a new government, he in fact kicked the "awkward ball" from under the feet of Hamas, whose lack of administrative experience and capable bureaucrats will only spoil their electoral triumph.

Particularly clear is the certain loss of at least US$1.96 billion in annual aid to cover administrative expenses, which means a dead government, if Hamas does not change its ways. The prospect prompted Hamas to propose a joint government with Fatah, but was quickly snubbed. According to the law, Abbas is authorized to invite Fatah to form a new government if Hamas could not do it within two months after the elections.

To put it simply, whether there will be a "Hamas administration" in Palestine remains a question at the moment. Some people may think that inviting Hamas to form a new government was a smart move by Abbas, but it was also a dangerous one, if for nothing else but this foreseeable scenario: a Fatah cabinet practically paralyzed by the Hamas-led opposition from the start.

The Palestine-Israel peace process has been in limbo for so long that any further delay because of the political uncertainty in Palestine will only nudge it closer to doom.

The author is a professor at the Beijing Institute of Foreign Relations.

(China Daily 02/06/2006 page4)

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