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(photo credit: Tovah Lazaroff)
"The Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections may be a blessing in disguise," Hanna Siniora, a candidate in Wednesday's elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, told The Jerusalem Post Thursday.
"Now that they are in power, Hamas will have to take responsibility for the future. They will have to become more moderate. Now they are part of the democratic game and they will have to play by the democratic rules," Siniora said.
Siniora, a 69-year-old east Jerusalemite Christian, is publisher of The Jerusalem Times
and a co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. An early proponent of negotiations with Israel, he has long been involved in pro-peace activities. He was one of seven candidates contending for one of the two seats reserved for Christians in the Jerusalem district, but is unlikely to win the seat.
"Once they are in power, the Hamas will have to pay salaries, create jobs and provide health and education services. They know that to do all of this, they need stability. In order to be in charge of the government, they will have to
become responsible leaders, if they want to stay in power," he predicted.
Siniora said that Hamas has already begun this process of moderation. "Hamas was responsible during the cease fire with Israel - in fact, they were in better control of their people than Fatah was. And they moderated their rhetoric, especially the positions that were anathema to the United States and Israel, such as calling for the destruction of the State of Israel."
Furthermore, he added, "Hamas ran under the slogan, 'Reform and Change' and promised a clean, efficient government. They ran as 'Mr. Clean' in these elections."
For these reasons, Siniora does not believe that the popular vote for Hamas was a vote of support for their terrorist agenda.
"Voting for Hamas was as much a backlash against the PLO as it was a vote for Hamas," he told the Post
. "The voters wanted to say to the Fatah, 'You have done nothing for ten years. Now get out.'"
He does, however, believe that Israel and the international community contributed to this backlash vote.
"Israel did not come to terms with the road map - it did not even reach Stage One. And the international community did not help the Palestinians create their own economic infrastructure. This contributed to the public's dissatisfaction with the Fatah.
"The Palestinian public wanted a change. They got one. A big one."
The Hamas victory, he said, has created a dilemma for Israel and the international community, who have declared that they will not meet with Hamas.
"But now Hamas, which was elected fairly by the Palestinian people, has the legitimate right to lead the Palestinian national council."
The international community and Israel, he continued, can help to determine Hamas' future directions.
"There are two models of Islamic ruling parties - the radical Iranian model and the moderate Turkish model. I want to send a message to the United States, to Europe and to Israel: You have the means to shape Hamas in a constructive way.
If you act correctly, then Hamas will move in the direction of moderation. But if you push Hamas into the corner, they will act irresponsibly and become violent."
In order to make themselves more acceptable to the international community, Siniora predicted, Hamas will make use of prominent independent political figures, such as Salam Fayad and, he hopes, Siniora himself.
Siniora called on Israel to put a stop to unilateral disengagement and to negotiate directly with the newly-elected Palestinian government. He called on the European parties to help to normalize relations between Hamas and Israel.
In order to achieve the stability it needs to rule, Siniora observed, Hamas will have to confront the militant armed groups that currently undermine stability in Palestinian society. He fears that some groups, such as disgruntled groups
allied with Fatah, who will now lose their power, will most likely resort to violence against the Hamas-led administration.
"Abu Mazen was afraid to disarm the Hamas and the other groups," Siniora observed with irony. "Now, Hamas will have to do the disarming. Hamas will have to show that they can control the extremists. They will have to use the big stick that Abu Mazen was afraid to use."
For these reasons, he believes, Hamas will undergo a process similar to the process the PLO has undergone in the past two decades. "I have worked with the PLO and watched them evolve from a terrorist organization, to partners in the Oslo process and to recognition of the State of Israel."
He predicted that the changes in Hamas will come quicker, "because the need is greater and because they have more to lose. There will be elections again in four years."
He acknowledged that, unlike the PLO, Hamas has a religious-fundamentalist ideology, but maintained that it would have to moderate these aspects, too.
"In Israel, everyone fears haredi control of the Education Ministry. We have the same concern on our side. Hamas has always said that they want control of education and social services. But like your haredim, they know they have to do a lot to dispel fears about their fundamentalist agenda, so hopefully, they will wisely allow independents to take these sensitive ministries."
The polls did not properly predict the Hamas victory, Siniora said, because they did not give enough weight to the non-urban vote. He said that he was not surprised by the high rate of voter turnout throughout the Palestinian Authority and especially in Jerusalem.
He observed that common wisdom has long held that due to the National Insurance Institute and health benefits which they receive from Israel, east Jerusalemites are not interested in allying with the Palestinian Authority.
"The high voter turn out in Jerusalem shows that Jerusalemites crossed the fear barrier and announced that they want to be recognized as Palestinians," he said.