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Mideast peace set back years

NBC  News’ Washington bureau chief and host of "Meet the Press" discusses Hamas and the Palestinian election, domestic spying and the Alito Supreme Court vote.

MSNBC: Tim, lets talk about Hamas. The Bush administration has pushed for the spread of democracy. They get democratic elections, but it's the worst possible outcome. Both Israel and the United States say they can not and will not negotiate with a political party that espouses violence.  So what’s going to happen with Hamas winning the Palestinian elections?  Are things just going to grind to a halt?

Tim Russert: This is a major boulder in the roadmap to peace.  There’s no doubt about it. It has set the process back several years from where it was just 24 hours ago.  The Israelis won't negotiate with Hamas because they’re calling for the destruction of Israel.

There’s always a risk when you have a free election.  When your side wins its good news, but sometimes the other side wins.  It’s kind of interesting and a bit ironic that President George W. Bush’s mission of having free elections take place in the Middle East turns out this way.

Democracy can sometimes be very complicated.

MSNBC:  Does it matter much that this turns out to be another surprise?  The collapse of Russia is a surprise, 9/11 is a surprise, what’s going on in Iraq is a surprise, no WMDs is a surprise and now Hamas wins this election by a wide margin and that’s a surprise.

Russert:  It sure does.

President Bush said the Palestinians didn’t like the corruption of the current regime and they threw them out.  Was that the only factor?  What is the mindset of the Palestinian people?  Why did they opt for Hamas?  Were there other things involved?  How much has the U.S. position in the world and Iraq influenced their voting behavior?  Theses are all serious and legitimate questions.

That’s not to suggest that America’s foreign policy should in any way be directed by Hamas, quite the opposite.  But the fact is everything the United States does in the Middle East has ramifications and fallout in the region and the world.

MSNBC:  Reports from American correspondents writing on the Palestinian standpoint tell of their frustration with their inability to do the simple things in life – protect their kids, have a regular life and get on with hoping tomorrow’s a little better day.  Should the U.S. have known the level of frustration better than it did?

Russert:  Yes.  The United States needs active, real intelligence to guage the frustration, the anger and the anxiety of the Palestinian people.

Do the Palestinian people really subscribe to the notion of destroying Israel?

A leader of Hamas told the BBC:  “Do not be afraid.  We also provide social services.  We do a lot of things that the traditional government didn’t do.”

That may be, but it avoids the fundamental question of whether Hamas can accept the principle of peaceful co-existence with Israel.

There’s no way the Israelis are going to sit down with Hamas at a bargaining table when Hamas says, “Okay, we want to destroy you.  Can we begin our negotiations?”

MSNBC:  Should we infer from the election results that there’s a pretty radicalized Palestinian population or was it more a reaction to the Fatah Party being pretty corrupt and ineffectual?

Russert:  I think its both.

Obviously they wanted to take care of the party, the organization that was feeding them and helping them out in terms of their personal needs and their social concerns.  But I also think there is a growing attitude toward the U.S. in the Islamic world.

This is a reflection of it.

MSNBC:  Does the fact the United States billions of dollars to each side there speak of any possible coercion on America’s part?

Russert:  It’s going to be fascinating.

The question is will Congress and the Bush Administration be wiling to send to the Palestinian people with Hamas distributing the money?

MSNBC:  On the issue of domestic spying, at his Thursday news conference, not only did President Bush defend his actions on that front, he said he’s going to continue it – and he also said to congress, don't go in and think about re-writing the law because that process will expose too much of what America’s trying to do. It may be obvious how Democratic members of Congress will feel. How will Republican members of congress feel about it?

Russert:  The answer is, we don't know.  The chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, is having hearings on this and is asking pointed questions of the attorney general.

There are a lot of Republicans who, privately, have expressed grave concerns about this program and they want answers.

The president is basically saying to the American people, “Forget about the legalisms. I have these powers, as president, under the constitution. I am trying to protect you.  End of subject.”

MSNBC:  And the process of discussing it may jeopardize the program?

Russert:  That's his view.

Democrats, on the other hand, are asking:  What is wrong with the current law when you can get to a court within 72 hours after eavesdropping and seek approval?

MSNBC:  Let's touch on the possible filibuster on the Supreme Court nomination of Judge Samuel Alito being called for by John Kerry and Ted Kennedy. Is there any broad support in the Democratic Party for that?

Russert:  They have the 60 votes to stop the filibuster. Alito will be confirmed.

MSNBC:  And now the Abramoff scandal. On NBC’s Today Show Thursday, Howard Dean asserted that it is a Republican scandal and that “Not one dime of money from Jack Abramoff ever went to any Democrat. Not one dime.”

The Center for Responsive Politics says technically Howard Dean may be correct, but 66 percent of the money in this situation went to Republicans but 34 percent of the money - not from Abramoff but from associates and clients - went to Democrats.

So, can Democrats wash their hands of this?

Russert:  No. They will say it is primarily a Republican scandal because the personal money of Abramoff went only to Republicans.  But both parties accepted contributions from Abramoff’s clients.  Both parties accept trips from lobbyists, and meals and so forth.  That's why in order to reform all this, there has to be a bipartisan approach.

The Democrats get raging mad when you suggest this is a bipartisan scandal. They say it's primarily Republican, but they’re willing to help clean it up.

MSNBC:  What’s up Sunday on Meet the Press?

Russert:  We’ll talk about all this and more in an exclusive interview with the Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-TN, who also, by the way, may run for president of the United States in 2008.

So it’s time for Mr. Frist to “Meet the Press”.