Will Hamas politics prove to be moderate or militant

jerusalem | Hamas’ sweeping election victory is forcing all key players to reassess their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has created a widespread sense of uncertainty about the future, with Israelis, Palestinians and outside observers raising a host of fundamental questions.

The big question is whether Hamas in power will moderate its radical positions or put Palestinian society on a collision course with Israel and the Western world.

There will be enormous pressure on Hamas to adopt a more pragmatic line. The European Union, which provides up to 90 percent of international aid to the Palestinians, is threatening to suspend its economic support unless Hamas recognizes Israel’s right to exist and renounces violence, and the United States is making the same threat.

In the short term, cutting off these funds could leave a Hamas government unable to pay the salaries of 155,000 Palestinian civil servants, including the 30,000-strong Palestinian Authority security forces. In the longer term, plans to jump-start the stalled Palestinian economy may have to be shelved, perpetuating poverty and unemployment.

A militant Hamas also will face international isolation, giving Israel the moral and diplomatic high ground for tough responses to Palestinian terror.

Israel will be able to exert tremendous diplomatic, economic and military pressure. On the diplomatic front, it won’t talk to Hamas in its present form; as to the economy, the Palestinians are dependent on Israel for electricity, tax revenue, goods, services, work places and border crossings; and, if terrorism escalates, Hamas leaders could become targets. On Wednesday, Feb. 1, Israel chose to freeze a $45 million transfer in tax rebates and customs payments.

In addition a recent poll conducted by a Palestinian newspaper, al Hayat al Jadeeda, shows three-quarters of Palestinian voters that voted for Hamas are opposed to the destruction of Israel.

Therefore, while it won an outright majority of 74 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas wants the defeated Fatah movement to stay on in the government to give it a semblance of respectability for Israel and the international community.

Still, Hamas for now probably will refuse to moderate its ideology. There are strong opposing pressures on Hamas to maintain its radical line.

Iran, for example, could make up for some funds the European Union withholds, on the condition that Hamas remain militant. Fidelity to its ideology, and goading by other militant groups, also could shunt Hamas away from moderation.

• Is Hamas uniformly radical, or are there more moderate voices?

The organization’s formal position is that there can be no talks with Israel until it withdraws to its pre-1967 boundaries, divides Jerusalem and takes in vast numbers of Palestinian refugees.

However, some Hamas leaders are intimating that there could be direct negotiations before then. In general, Ismail Haniya, Hamas’ primary candidate for prime minister, is thought to be more pragmatic than the Gaza-based party leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar.

• How is the secular Fatah movement likely to respond to its loss of power?

Fatah, which was founded by Yasser Arafat, has dominated the Palestinian nationalist movement since its inception 40 years ago. Its loss of power to the Islamic fundamentalists came as a profound shock.

Fatah says it intends to hand over power peacefully, but there has been fighting between the two groups. A key development to watch will be whether security personnel loyal to Fatah agree to place themselves under Hamas command.

• What are the likely regional consequences?

For Israel, one of the most dangerous results would be a growth of Iranian influence in the Palestinian arena. Hawks like the Likud Party’s Yuval Steinitz see a tightening of an Iranian-controlled terrorist belt around Israel, with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah to the north and Hamas and other Palestinian militants in the center and south.

A lot will depend on the choice Hamas makes between Iran and the rest of the international community.

• Will Hamas continue the cease-fire that most Palestinian terrorist groups declared in early 2005?

The Israeli intelligence assessment is that Hamas will observe the cease-fire, at least in the short term. What happens next will depend on the long-term strategy that Hamas decides to adopt.

As for terrorist acts by other militants, such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, with its radical ideology, will be in no position to condemn them.

Some Israelis are saying this will make it easier for Israel to cope. There will be no more double talk, analysts say, such as when the Palestinian Authority condemned terror but did nothing to stop it.

• What are Israel’s options?

Government policy is shaping up as the following: No talks with Hamas, insistence on the “road map” peace plan’s demands for a renunciation of terrorism and disarming of militias, consideration of further unilateral withdrawals, rapid completion of the West Bank security barrier and targeting of the Islamic Jihad militia.

• What impact is the rise of Hamas likely to have on Israeli elections?

All the main parties are trying to make political capital of the Hamas victory in the run-up to Israel’s own election in March. Likud argues that last summer’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank showed the Palestinians that terrorism pays, and Hamas’ claim that its militia forced Israel to leave paved the way for its election success.

On the left, Labor and Meretz claim that the Sharon government weakened Abbas and Fatah by ignoring them as potential peace partners, which they say contributed to Hamas’ rise.

Despite the rise of Hamas, however, Likud may find it difficult this time to dent Kadima’s lead in the polls. The governing party’s message — that Israel has the power to shape a new reality that’s best for it, regardless of who holds power on the Palestinian side — seems at least as valid as when Fatah was in charge.