Can the White House Warm Up to Hamas?

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Hamas' stunning victory in the Palestinian elections left the Bush Administration in a difficult position this morning, forced to reconcile the fruits of its push for democracy in the Middle East with its goal of peace in the region. In response, the White House argued that the vote was a rejection of the ruling guard Fatah's corruption, rather than the peace process itself. Speaking at a press conference this morning, President Bush called the Hamas win a “wake-up” call for the Fatah leadership. "You see, when you give people the vote, give them the chance to express themselves at the polls and they're unhappy with the status quo, they'll let you know," he said. "The people are demanding honest government. The people want services. They want to be able to raise their children in an environment in which they can get a decent education and they can find health care. And so the elections should open the eyes of the old guard there in the Palestinian territories. I like the competition of ideas. I like people who have to go out and say, vote for me, and here's what I'm going to do. There's something healthy about a system that does that."

Still, for all the celebration of democracy, Bush warned Hamas and sidestepped the question of whether he would be willing to deal with Hamas. "If your platform is the destruction of Israel, it means you're not a partner in peace,” he said. "I made it very clear that the United States does not support political parties that want to destroy our ally, Israel, and that people must renounce that part of their platform. But the government hasn't formed yet. They're beginning to talk about how to form the government."

This morning, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for a meeting of the so-called Middle East Quartet, an international peace-making group that is composed of representatives from the U.S., U.N., European Union and Russia. That meeting is expected to take place next Monday, when Rice and other foreign ministers and international officials gather in London for a donors’ conference on Afghanistan. Meanwhile, she telephoned Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livini and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan. Then, speaking via videoconference to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Rice offered a muted response, suggesting that the election results demonstrated popular disaffection with Fatah but were not necessarily an endorsement of militancy.

“The Palestinian people have apparently voted for change,” she said, “but we believe that their aspirations for peace and a peaceful life remain unchanged." Then, alluding to Hamas’ commitment to armed resistance to Israel, she said that the Palestinians can only achieve peace “through a two-state solution, which requires a renunciation of violence and turning away from terrorism and accepting the right of Israel to exist and the disarmament of militias. As we have said, you cannot have one foot in politics and the other in terror. Our position on Hamas has therefore not changed. “

Rice didn't spell out that position, but on Jan. 5, discussing the possibility of a strong Hamas showing, she said, "Hamas is a terrorist group that does not recognize the existence of Israel and it is a group that has not renounced violence and the problem, of course, is a very practical problem. In addition to the fact that the United States won't change its policies toward Hamas, the practical problem is that the Palestinian leadership in the roadmap is committed to a renunciation of violence, committed to dismantling terrorist organizations, committed to a peaceful road." With Hamas' victory, the U.S. knows that road will probably now be a lot more bumpy.