Israel is moving closer to allowing Palestinians living in East Jerusalem to vote in the upcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections. The dispute over the issue has put the balloting in jeopardy and the snag was the militant Islamic group, Hamas.
Israel argued that Hamas should not be allowed to take part in the Palestinian elections. Unable to stop the Islamic group's participation, Israel said it would not facilitate the balloting and might bar Palestinians living in East Jerusalem from voting.
The issue appears near resolution with the Israeli Cabinet expected to vote Sunday on letting Palestinians cast absentee ballots, as they've been allowed to do in the past, as long as no Hamas candidates are on the list.
The participation of Hamas in the elections has put Israel and the U.S. in a bind. Washington, in particular, has put considerable pressure on the Palestinians to implement democratic reforms, including free and fair elections. Yet, there is growing concern about the involvement of a group that has called for Israel's destruction, claimed responsibility for numerous suicide bombings and has been labeled a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and a host of other countries.
In a statement issued Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said there should be "no place in the political process for groups or individuals who refuse to renounce terror and violence," refuse to recognize Israel's right to exist, and refuse to disarm.
Yet, last week she responded to suggestions that the elections be postponed, because of Hamas's potentially strong showing, saying it was not something Washington could support.
"I don't really believe that we can favor postponing elections because we fear an outcome," she said. "I think that would be inappropriate."
These are the kinds of risks proponents of democracy must be willing to take, says Arab political columnist and writer Rami Khouri.
"If the U.S. and Arab leaders and others are serious about promoting democracy, they have to accept the will of the majority," he said.
Khouri writes extensively on Middle East issues and is currently editor-at-large at Lebanon's Daily Star newspaper. He told VOA from his office in Beirut, that concern about armed groups such as Hamas or the Lebanese-based Hezbollah cannot be resolved by shutting them out. Instead, he says they should be brought into the political fold, much as the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was in Northern Ireland.
"I think the best antidote is to deal with them the same way people dealt with the IRA and other groups that were national liberation movements or resistance movements, to engage them in the political process and make it clear that if groups want to be engaged in politics, they must give up violence," he added. "That is a fair and reasonable thing to ask of people."
Hamas has enjoyed traditionally strong support in the Gaza Strip, but its showing in recent municipal elections indicates a growing strength in the West Bank as well.
While many Palestinians do not support Hamas's suicide attacks, they do see the group as a strong opponent of Israel's occupation. Many also rely on the social and medical help Hamas dispenses to the poor. Hamas has not been tainted by allegations of widespread corruption - unlike the ruling Fatah party. And while Fatah has been ripped apart by internal disputes and chaos, Hamas has maintained cohesion and discipline.
Hamas's standing has steadily increased in recent years and some say it was actually aided by Israel and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's tough crackdown against the Palestinian uprising, the intifada.
"His [Sharon's] approach of no-partner, the time is not ripe [to negotiate], they [the Palestinians] didn't do enough to eliminate terrorism, this didn't lead the Palestinian people to raise a white flag [of surrender]," Israeli political columnist Akiva Eldar of the liberal Haaretz newspaper. "Instead, they are raising the green flag of Hamas."
Israeli officials would counter that argument, saying they had no choice but to strike back hard against Palestinian terrorism.
Rami Khouri says the rising power of Islamic groups is a much broader phenomenon.
"I think that's inevitable. It's no surprise to anybody. The Islamist groups have been the main opposition groups for many years and they have a lot of credibility and they are working very vigorously in democratic electoral politics," he explained.
Khouri says the growing influence of Islamic groups is becoming a political reality throughout the Middle East and one that cannot be ignored. The challenge, he says, lies in how to deal with it.