RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas members, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Thursday after the Islamic militant group's landslide victory in parliament elections.
“The state of Israel will not negotiate with a Palestinian administration if even part of it is an armed terrorist organization calling for the destruction of the state of Israel,” Olmert said in a statement issued after an emergency meeting with senior Cabinet ministers, including Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and acting Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Hamas, whose Islamic militants have carried out dozens of suicide bombings against Israel, has said it opposes peace talks and will not disarm. Israel and the United States refuse to deal with Hamas and the two, along with the European Union, have classified Hamas as a terrorist organization.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said major mediating powers Thursday agreed Hamas should renounce violence.
“We reaffirmed the view that ... you can’t have one foot in terror and the other in politics,” Rice told Reuters in an interview after senior officials from the so-called Quartet — Russia, the United Nations, the European Union and the United States — spoke by phone.
No U.S. aid
Rice, who ruled out giving U.S. aid to Hamas, also said she reassured Israel — in a separate call to her counterpart — that the international community would demand the militant group recognize the Jewish state.
And in a coordinated international response to pressure Hamas, which has launched suicide bombings against Israel, the Quartet also issued a statement putting demands on the group now that it has won power.
“A two-state solution to the conflict requires all participants in the democratic process to renounce violence and terror, accept Israel’s right to exist, and disarm,” the statement said.
At a news conference on Thursday, President Bush said in Washington that Hamas can’t be peace partner without renouncing violence. “I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate destruction of a country,” he said.
According to a state official who spoke on condition of anonymity to NBC News, the U.S. gave over $400 million in aid to Palestinians in 2005. It is not yet known whether the U.S. government will take back any of the funds, but the official said “No one wants to see ordinary Palestinians suffer.”
In response to Hamas’ win, Austria, which holds the European Union’s rotating presidency, issued a statement on behalf of the 25-nation bloc stating “there is no place in a political process for groups or individuals who advocate violence.”
Israel’s announcement came shortly after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate and leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said he was committed to negotiations with Israel and would start immediate consultations on a new government.
Hamas, meanwhile, was quiet after results came in, issuing no response to global concern prompted by the group’s victory.
Bypassing Hamas leadership?
Abbas also suggested that future negotiations with Israel be conducted through the PLO, a possible bypass of a Hamas-led government.
“I am committed to implementing the program on which you elected me a year ago,” he said in a televised speech. “It is a program based on negotiations and peaceful settlement with Israel.”
The PLO was founded as an umbrella organization for the Palestine groups several decades ago, but its importance has withered since the establishment of the Palestinian Authority in 1994. Abbas is leader of the PLO, in addition to his role as Palestinian Authority president.
He said he remained committed to previous peace deals with Israel and the U.S.-backed “road map” peace plan, which calls for the creation of a Palestinian state.
Israel's Mofaz also said that the road map is the “only existing path.” He said Israel also will insist that Abbas keep his commitments to disarm militants.
Official vote results in
In Thursday's elections, Hamas won 76 seats in the 132-member parliament, while Fatah, which controlled Palestinian politics for four decades, won 43 seats, said Hanna Nasser, head of the Central Election commission. The 13 remaining seats went to several smaller parties and independents.
Hamas won 60.3 percent of the vote, said Ismail Haniyeh, one of the group's leaders.
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia and his Cabinet resigned even before the official results were announced.
Hamas’ exiled supreme leader, Khaled Mashaal, called Abbas from Syria to discuss the results. “He stressed Hamas insists on a partnership with all the Palestinian factions, especially our brothers in Fatah,” Hamas said on its Web site.
In a first sign of pragmatism, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar said the group would extend its year-old truce if Israel reciprocates. “If not, then I think we will have no option but to protect our people and our land,” he told Associated Press Television News.
But a Hamas government, without Fatah as a moderating force, would greatly complicate Abbas’ efforts to restart peace talks.
Fatah legislator Saeb Erekat said the party does not want to join a Hamas government. “We will be a loyal opposition and rebuild the party,” Erekat said after meeting with Abbas.
Muslims say Hamas needs a chance
Reacting to criticism following the Islamic group's victory, Muslim leaders said the world should give Hamas a chance.
“If the people of Palestine have expressed their will by voting for Hamas, we should respect it and give Hamas a chance to prove itself while in government,” Afghan President Hamid Karzai told the World Economic Forum in Davos.
Abbas was elected separately a year ago and remains president. However, the Palestinian leader has said he would resign if he could no longer pursue his peace agenda. The Cabinet and legislature must approve any major initiative by Abbas, giving Hamas tremendous influence over peace moves.
Fatah weaknesses helped Hamas
Hamas capitalized on widespread discontent with years of Fatah corruption and ineffectiveness. Before the election, Hamas had suggested it would be content as a junior partner in the next government, thus avoiding a decision on its relationship with Israel.
Throughout the campaign, leaders sent mixed signals, hinting they could be open to some sort of accommodation with Israel. Its apparent victory will now force it to take a clearer position on key issues, including whether to abandon its violent ideology.
Mushir al-Masri, a Hamas candidate who won election in the northern Gaza Strip, said peace talks and recognition of Israel are “not on our agenda” but the group is ready for a partnership — presumably with Abbas.
Half the seats in Wednesday’s parliament vote were chosen on a national list and the other half by districts. While the national voting appeared to be close, election officials said Hamas had won a large majority in the district races.
Palestinian pollsters were at a loss to explain the discrepancy between the exit polls and the reality. It may have been partly due to a reluctance by some voters to admit to pollsters that they were abandoning the ruling party.
Ashrawi: Dramatic turning point
Palestinian legislator Hanan Ashrawi, who apparently was re-elected on a moderate platform, said the Hamas victory was a dramatic turning point. She said she is concerned the militants will now impose their fundamentalist social agenda and lead the Palestinians into international isolation.
She said Fatah’s corruption, Israel’s tough measures and international indifference to the plight of the Palestinians were to blame for Hamas’ strong showing.
Washington miscalculated in pushing for the vote as part of its pro-democracy campaign in the Arab world, she said. “The Americans insisted on having the election now, so they have to respect the results of the election, as we all do,” she said.
Turnout for Wednesday’s vote was heavy, with nearly 78 percent of 1.3 million eligible voters casting ballots.
The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.