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The Bush administration made clear Friday that it would not get involved in the upcoming Palestinian elections, despite the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approving a resolution calling for Hamas to be barred from the race.
The resolution, which passed 397-17 on Friday, came the day after Hamas posted wins in municipal elections in major West Bank towns. The measure threatens the Palestinian Authority with losing support in Congress for financial aid if it allows Hamas to take part in the elections.
The Bush administration believes that in principle Hamas should not take part in the democratic process before it has disarmed and declared its recognition of Israel's right to exist. On the practical level, though, the administration is not demanding any action, acknowledging PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's difficulty in confronting Hamas before the elections.
While objecting vociferously to Hamas's participation in Palestinian elections, until now Israel's position has not differed markedly from the Bush administration's.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said that the US "is not helping any particular party" running for the Palestinian parliament. But he added that past experience proves that parties sending a message of peace are more successful than others.
"In terms of the past performance of those who have campaigned on a platform of peace and security and working out differences with Israel through negotiations, those people have succeeded," McCormack said in his daily press briefing at the State Department.
"We are not going to interfere in the election physically," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman Ra'anan Gissin said Saturday night. But he warned that Hamas suspects would still be tracked down by Israeli security services.
"The fact that they're participating in the elections will not give them immunity," he said, adding that Israel welcomed the House resolution.
Israeli officials warned that should Hamas take control of the government, that would spell the end of negotiations, since the Islamic party ideology opposes a two-state solution.
"If Hamas ever succeeded in dominating the Palestinian Authority that would be the end of the peace process," Foreign Ministry Spokesman Mark Regev said.
The Bush administration did not work against the resolution and did not use its leverage to convince Republican lawmakers not to support it.
House Resolution 575 was sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats and heavily lobbied by the pro-Israeli lobby AIPAC (American Israel Public Affairs Committee). It calls on the PA to set criteria for the participation of Hamas and other terrorist groups in elections for the Palestinian parliament and warns the PA of possible repercussions if it does not make sure Hamas meets these conditions before the elections.
The criteria set by Congress for participation in the Palestinian elections require all Palestinian terrorist groups to recognize Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state; to stop terrorism and condemn the use of violence; to stop incitement; and to dismantle their terror infrastructures.
The Bush administration is obliged to pass every foreign aid decision through Congress and gain approval of both houses before the aid can be given. The new resolution could impede any future American plans to aid the PA but it has no immediate practical implications.
The foreign operations bill for 2006, which includes all American foreign aid, was already approved. The next time Congress may be asked to deal with further aid is in mid 2006 - at the earliest - if the administration decides to give more money to the PA through a supplemental budget bill. At present, according to diplomatic sources in Washington, there is no talk of special financial aid for the Palestinians above what was previously approved.
Before the resolution was passed, Israeli representatives in Washington made clear Israel's opposition to Hamas's participation in the elections. Israeli Ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon released a statement Thursday in which he declared unequivocally that Israel opposes Hamas's participation in the Palestinian elections.
"The participation of a terrorist organization in elections contradicts the basic principles of democracy and the rule of law," the statement read. "Hamas has not yet begun to disarm and has made clear that it has no intention of doing so."
The need for such a statement from Israel's top diplomat in Washington was raised after members of Congress and pro-Israel advocates on Capitol Hill said the Israeli stance on the issue was ambiguous after Sharon first said that Israel would prevent Hamas from participating in the elections and then stated that Israel would take no action to stop Hamas members from running for parliament.
Israeli sources said over the weekend that Hamas's participation in the January elections is not a topic being discussed between Israel and the US at present and that Israel is not asking the administration to change its approach on the issue.
AIPAC, which worked behind the scenes to garner support for the resolution, issued a statement Friday praising its passage and calling on the PA to take immediate action to prevent Hamas from participating in the elections.