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All the attempts of the US administration to put a positive face on the Palestinian Authority elections ("healthy process," in the words of President George Bush; "free, fair," as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described them) could not disguise the shock of the policy makers in Washington at the results.
Hamas's victory has put the Bush administration in a very difficult position, not only because it deprives the US of its partner for promoting the two-state solution, but also because of the devastating affect the results will have on Bush's foreign policy worldwide.
The US has based its Middle East policy on the notion of promoting democracy and made free elections its number one priority. "Democracy yields peace," as Bush put it in his press conference Thursday.
This was not only an ideological statement. The administration sees the promotion of democratic elections as a key component of its foreign policy. Last month, when PA officials, fearing Hamas's success, hinted that it might be wise to postpone the elections, the US stood firmly against this idea and made it clear that holding the elections on time was a top priority.
This policy has now suffered a severe blow. Not only is the Bush administration seen as having pushed the PA into a process that led Hamas to power, the US also has to reinvent its Middle East policy to deal with the new reality on the ground.
The first casualty of the elections is the road map. No matter what shape the next PA government might have, it is already clear that it will not move to dismantle Hamas's military arm or to implement the call for "one authority, one gun." This is one of the first provisions of the road map and if it is not filled, Israel will not be willing to move forward.
For the US, the greatest advantage of the road map was its being "result-based," meaning that the implementation of each phase was conditioned on both sides living up to their obligations from the prior phase. Now the road map is stuck on phase one and cannot move forward, since the demand for dismantling terrorist groups will not be fulfilled.
It is now up to the US and its partners in the Quartet to find creative ways to bypass their own plan to move forward with the peace process.
While the long-term goals of the US have suffered a significant setback, the short-term issues are not too difficult to deal with. The immediate task facing the US is to figure out how to keep an open channel of communication with the PA, now that Hamas controls the Palestinian Legislative Council, and what to do about financial aid to the PA.
Both of these issues are fairly simple, as long as Mahmoud Abbas remains PA chairman and is in charge of the PA's foreign policy. The US can always keep on negotiating with Abbas and with Fatah members of the future cabinet, and at the same time avoid any contact with ministers representing Hamas.
The financial aid issue is also not as significant as it may seem: The US provides the PA with some $250 million a year and the European Union contributes double that. Most of the international money funneled into PA-controlled territories is given to NGOs and private projects, so it does not really matter who sits in the PLC in Ramallah.
The only hurdle facing Bush on this issue is Congress, which has already hinted it will not approve aid for the Palestinians if Hamas is in power. But that was more of a preelection threat meant at pushing Abbas to crack down on Hamas. Now that Hamas has already won, it will be easier to convince Congress to approve funding for humanitarian needs in PA-controlled territories.
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