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Vote leaves no choice but to allow Hamas to prove itself

DAVOS, SWITZERLAND — DAVOS, SWITZERLAND -- I came to the World Economic Forum to get away from the Middle East. Or so I thought.

The program at this annual gathering of world leaders, CEOs, thinkers, artists and media who gather at a snowy resort two hours from Zurich has an uncanny way of spotlighting the world's main concerns. This year, the organizers seemed to have given up on the Middle East.

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In the compact conference center, the focus of Davos 2006 was on China and India. There was a dizzying sense that the future belonged to Asia, while Europe was bogged down by an aging population and an unaffordable social safety net and the United States was mired in Iraq.

The Mideast was conspicuous by its absence from the agenda, with no top leaders in attendance. A scheduled Thursday panel on the Mideast peace process was even scrapped.

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Then came the bombshell. The results from Palestinian elections Wednesday showed that the Islamist movement Hamas, which the Bush administration labels a terrorist group, had won an absolute majority of seats for the Palestinian parliament. Davos buzzed.

At first glance, the result looked disastrous. As President Bush said yesterday, "I don't see how you can be a partner for peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform." I agree.

Yet, as I spoke with Arab intellectuals, businessmen and officials, I was fascinated that most were optimistic. And not because they seek Israel's destruction.

These Arab moderates think Hamas will be forced to behave differently once it forms a government. They hope Hamas will demonstrate that Islamists can play by democratic rules now that it has entered the political game. They argue that Hamas can set a precedent for Islamist political parties in other countries - such as Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq - where they are a strong political force. Wishful thinking perhaps, but interesting all the same.

A panel of Muslim leaders - Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf, Afghan President Hamid Karzai, Hajim al-Hasani, the president of the Iraqi national assembly, and Queen Rania of Jordan - argued that the world, and Mr. Bush, must respect the Palestinian vote. They also stressed that Hamas must exercise responsible behavior.

"I think it is a good thing to bring Hamas into the political process," said Mr. Hasani. "The origin of terrorism comes from isolating these [Islamist] movements. Put these people in the process and let them prove themselves. That's what we are trying to do in Iraq" - where religious parties won the most seats in parliament.

He made one more crucial point: Every party, including religious ones, had to abide by rules in a democracy, He said Iraq was trying to isolate - and ultimately fight - those who wouldn't play by democratic rules.

The question, of course, is whether Hamas will be interested in such rules. Amjad Atallah, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority, thinks Hamas will have to avoid violence once they set up a government and must deliver on promises to govern better. He says they won as the result of a protest vote; Palestinians were fed up with the ruling Fatah party's inability to end "incompetence, ineptitude and corruption" and domestic violence.

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Had there been an on-going peace process, Mr. Atallah believes, Palestinians would have given Fatah a majority. If Israel restarts talks, once its elections are held in March, he thinks the Palestinian public will insist that Hamas behave responsibly.

Yet Israel can't negotiate with Hamas if it plays the old Sinn Fein game of negotiating while its IRA equivalent fights on. But Hamas was chosen democratically in elections the United States actively supported. So the new Palestinian government must be given a chance to prove itself.

Having pushed for elections, the United States cannot now stand back. It must press Palestinian and Israeli leaders to meet the parallel demands of the "road map" to peace - an end to terror and a freeze on settlements in the West Bank.

Then we will see whether there are grounds for dialogue between Hamas and Israel, if Hamas lives up to Davos' hopes. If it won't play by democratic rules, it's time to exercise Mr. Hasani's formula of isolation. A time of testing has begun.

Trudy Rubin is a columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Her column usually appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail is trubin@phillynews.com.


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