Palestinians go to the polls Wednesday to elect a new parliament. The Islamic resistance group, Hamas, is expected to do well. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at the political ramifications of a strong showing by Hamas.
Palestinians will cast ballots for a 132-member legislative council, or parliament. And experts say the outcome could have a major effect on the political landscape in the Palestinian territories as well as on the search for a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and on relations with the United States.
The main reason is the emergence of the leading Islamic resistance group, Hamas, as a potent political force, presenting an unprecedented challenge to the ruling party, Fatah.
For decades, Fatah has been the dominant Palestinian political party. But experts say corruption, divisions within Fatah and the inability of the ruling party to address economic and social issues within the Palestinian territories, all of those factors have benefited Hamas. It did very well in local elections last year and hopes to have a strong showing in Wednesday's parliamentary ballot. Public opinion surveys indicate Hamas is in a virtual tie with Fatah and will win a significant number of parliamentary seats.
While becoming increasingly active politically, Hamas still calls for the destruction of the state of Israel. It has not renounced the use of violence to achieve that goal, although experts say Hamas has held to a yearlong ceasefire. Along with other extremist groups, such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade and Islamic Jihad, Hamas is on the U.S. State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
Analysts say a key question is what will Hamas do once it enters parliament? Will it forsake violence for politics or will it continue its attacks on Israeli targets?
Experts are divided on that issue.
David Makovsky, from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, predicts Hamas will not change.
"Mahmoud Zahar, the leader of Hamas [in Gaza], has said repeatedly, anyone who thinks that Hamas is going to moderate its views as a result of being elected, doesn't know Hamas," he said. "And I think that this is an organization that should be taken at its word. It has called for the destruction of Israel and believes violence is a way to achieve that objective and we need to be very wary in trying to somehow launder Hamas as somehow a legitimate party."
But other experts say Hamas has tempered its goals. Alon Ben-Meir, Middle East expert teaching at New York University, says Hamas may shift its efforts to politics and ultimately renounce violence.
"Polls after polls are suggesting that 68 to 72 percent of the Palestinians do not want a resumption of violence," he explained. "They are sick and tired of what has happened in the last five years as a result of the Intifada. They have been living in ruins. Joblessness in some places is 40 percent. Poverty is rampant and they are saying enough is enough and they are looking for a solution. Hamas has its ears to the ground. They are listening to their public and I don't believe, personally, that their adherence to the ceasefire is tactical. I think it is a strategic move and now, if and when they win what they are expected to win in this election, they may very well translate that into a major political base."
Experts say a strong showing by Hamas in parliamentary elections and its possible inclusion in a Palestinian Authority government, poses a problem for many countries, including the United States.
Seth Jones, Middle East expert with the Rand Corporation, says the issue surfaced after Hamas' success in last year's local elections.
"It was very successful in local elections," said Mr. Jones. "So successful, in fact, that that's what began to worry a number of governments abroad and Israel. It deeply worried the United States and the Europeans, that they could be faced with a paradox: on the one hand, they support the issue of democracy in the Palestinian territory. On the other hand, they have tended to not support Hamas. So what do you do with a situation where Hamas gains a significant amount and degree of support among the Palestinian population? This is democracy. It presents both the Palestinian Authority and also the international community with something of a democratic dilemma."
The United States has made its position clear. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli.
"Now in the case of Hamas, in the case of Hezbollah in Lebanon, these are groups that have a history of committing terrorist acts, killing innocent people in order to advance political agendas," said Mr. Ereli. "And we're not going to deal with them. We're not saying they can't exist as political parties, we're not saying they can't run in elections, we're not saying you can't have elections with them participating. All we're saying is if you get elected, you'll have to deal with somebody besides us. As long as these groups espouse violence, as long as they don't renounce their ways, clearly and explicitly, we won't deal with them."
But Fawaz Gerges, expert on the Palestinians and professor of Middle Eastern studies at Sarah Lawrence College, says the U.S. must abide by the Palestinians' choice.
"The question on the table is not, really, what Israel and the United States want. The question on the table is what the Palestinians want," he noted. "And if the Palestinians elect Hamas, one has to respect the legitimate aims and goals of the Palestinians. After all, we as a country, the United States, we keep saying we respect democracy. We respect the wishes of the people. And if the Palestinians elect Hamas, we have to respect the legitimate wishes of the Palestinians."
Experts say Wednesday's election is important not only for the Palestinians. They say Israel will be watching closely as it prepares for its parliamentary election at the end of March. Analysts say how the Palestinians vote might influence the way Israeli voters cast their ballots: whether they will choose moderate or more radical candidates.