At a time when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is already in jeopardy due to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's massive stroke, the win by the militant Islamic group Hamas of a majority of seats in Wednesday's Palestinian parliamentary elections has stunned observers and many Western leaders.
The final results found Hamas winning 76 seats in the governing body to the former ruling party Fatah's 43.
Hamas has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and its European allies. In a surprise press conference Thursday morning (January 26), President Bush was markedly upbeat about the democratic nature of the elections, even as he vowed not to work with an organization that promotes violence.
"Peace is never dead because people want peace," Bush said. "When you give people democracy, when they're unsatisfied with the results, they'll let you know. ... Yesterday the turnout was significant, as I understand it, and there was a peaceful process as people went to the polls, and that's positive. But what's also positive is that it's a wake-up call to the leadership. Obviously, people were not happy with the status quo," he added, alluding to the ongoing allegations of corruption that have enveloped Fatah, the party founded by the late Yasser Arafat.
"People are demanding honest government. ... I like the competition of ideas. ... On the other hand, I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform. And I know you can't be a partner in peace if your party has an armed wing." Pressed further, the president said because a new government hasn't been formed or certified, he would not speculate on whether the U.S. would work with a ruling Hamas party.
Bush's somewhat muted response may have been a result of the fact that the apparently fair win by Hamas was monitored by a group of Americans led by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who said the elections were "well-administered," according to an Associated Press report.
"You can't have one foot in politics and another in terror," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said in response to the victory Thursday, strongly indicating that Hamas would have to reform its ways if it expected to be recognized by the U.S. and its allies.
Once word of the victory spread, other world leaders joined Rice in putting pressure on Hamas to recognize Israel and renounce violence. "It is a very, very, very bad result," Italian news agencies quoted Premier Silvio Berlusconi as saying. "If this news was confirmed, everything we had hoped for, that chance for peace between Israel and Palestine, is postponed to who knows when."
"The whole of the international community has the responsibility to accept the outcome of any fair and democratic election," said British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw. "But in this case Hamas has a clear responsibility to understand that with democracy goes a rejection of violence." A spokesperson for British Prime Minister Tony Blair gave a more sober assessment. "We can only do business with people who renounce terrorism," he said.
Reaction was wholly different in the Arab world, where the news of Hamas' win was the lead story on state-run radio in Iran — which has been accused by Israel and the U.S. of supplying Hamas and other Palestinian militants with weapons and funding, according to the AP. "This is a victory to all the region's free people," said Ayyoub Muhanna, a 29-year-old who owns a spare parts shop in Lebanon. "The Palestinians gave their vote to the party that gave of its blood."
Hamas has vowed to work with Fatah, whose prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, visited President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday to hand in his resignation, followed by that of his cabinet. Abbas, the leader of Fatah, was popularly elected in a separate presidential election last year, and his position is not affected by Wednesday's vote. He will, however, have to work with a legislature that will be ruled by his opponents, and though Fatah initially said it would not agree to a coalition government with Hamas, officials now say they will take a few days to decide if joint rule is possible, according to Time magazine.
In addition to calling for the destruction of Israel, Hamas has been behind a series of suicide bombings targeting the Jewish state and has rejected calls for disarmament and for peace with Israel. The name Hamas is an acronym of Harakat al-Muqawamah al-Islamiyyah ("Islamic Resistance Movement"), and the group, formed in the 1970s, has gained a following in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, both for its paramilitary activities and its welfare and social services on behalf of poor Palestinians.