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Mideast Muddle

With Israel's Prime Minister disabled and Hamas the victor in Palestinian elections, what's next for the region?

By Suzanne Bilyeu

The always-volatile Middle East has been made even more unpredictable by two recent events: On January 4, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a major stroke that left him in a coma. Three weeks later, in their first legislative elections in 10 years, Palestinians handed an overwhelming victory to the radical Islamic party Hamas, which is sworn to Israel's destruction and is responsible for suicide bombings and other terrorist attacks against Israel.

Israel, led for five years by the dominant figure of Sharon, suddenly has an assortment of politicians vying for its leadership and the direction the country will take. Ehud Olmert, Sharon's deputy, has been named acting Prime Minister and will lead Israel, at least until after previously scheduled elections are held on March 28.

West Bank Withdrawals?

Sharon and his new centrist Kadima ("forward") Party were favored to win next month's elections. It is now up to Olmert, a longtime Sharon supporter, to carry the banner. Olmert, who supported Israel's withdrawal from Gaza last August, says that he backs the creation of a Palestinian state, and that Israel will ultimately have to relinquish parts of the West Bank, which Israel captured along with Gaza and the Golan Heights during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Olmert says the biggest challenge facing Israel is defining the country's permanent borders in a way that assures the nation's security and a continued Jewish majority. "The choice between allowing Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel and living in a state with a Jewish majority mandates giving up parts of the land of Israel," says Olmert. "We will not be able to continue ruling over the territories in which the majority of the Palestinian population lives." About 250,000 Jewish settlers live in the West Bank, and the number has been increasing by more than 10,000 a year.

The results of the Palestinian election, along with Sharon's sudden political absence, have thrown the future of the peace process with the Palestinians into question. And the Palestinian Authority, still led by President Mahmoud Abbas, was in disarray even before the elections repudiated its leadership.

The Authority is nearly bankrupt, and life for ordinary Palestinians is becoming harder, with an overall unemployment rate of about 23 percent. (The digging of tunnels for weapons smuggling along the Egyptian border is one of Gaza's few thriving enterprises.) Since Israel left Gaza, the territory has become practically lawless.

Indeed, one of the reasons Palestinians may have voted for Hamas is disgust with the mismanagement and corruption of Abbas's secular Fatah Party, which has dominated Palestinian politics for decades and was headed by Yasir Arafat until his death two years ago.

Ahmad el-Balawi, 20, who lives in Gaza, says he turned to Hamas because of Fatah's corruption and the deterioration of ordinary life. "We are Muslims, and we need change," he says. "We've had experience with Fatah, unfortunately."

Hamas in Government

Abbas won praise just for holding the election, despite warnings, including from his own supporters, about the consequences of a strong Hamas showing. Israel, along with the United States and the European Union, considers Hamas a terrorist organization, and has always refused to deal with it. Olmert says that he "will not negotiate with a government that does not meet its basic obligations to fight terrorism." Abbas has said in the past that he would move to disarm Hamas, but he has not. It is unlikely in his new, much weaker position that he will do so now.

As Israelis move forward, they may not give their new leader the same leeway they gave Sharon. Israelis trusted Sharon—a former general and defense minister—to make their security his first priority. A majority were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on his policies (like the withdrawal from Gaza, which involved the eviction of Israeli settlers), something they may not grant his successor.

Israel's elections next month may provide some answers about its own direction and its future dealings, if any, with a Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says that Hamas should react to its victory by laying down its weapons and accepting Israel's right to exist.

"Democracy brings not just rights but obligations and responsibilities too," she says. "One of these is to be a fighter for peace and not for war and not for violence."