Arab world divided on Hamas's next step

Leaders certain of PA vote's importance - but disagree on what must happen next.

Even as world leaders hastily planned meetings to formulate an updated policy in light of the landlslide Hamas victory in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Moslem and Arab leaders also weighed in with their perspectives of the suprise victory. While a senior Lebanese official said Friday that Hamas "needs to move forward on how to make peace with Israel," Saad Hariri, who heads the majority bloc in Lebanon's parliament, said before seeing President George W. Bush at the White House the Palestinians were victims of oppression and it was a decision for Hamas to make. "It will take time," he told reporters. Hariri said Hamas might follow the example of Fatah, the more mainstream Palestinian group it defeated in parliamentary elections, and come around to accepting Israel, a step Bush said Thursday was necessary for the United States to deal with Hamas.
But, Hariri said, "I don't know what the Palestinian people want." At the same time, he urged Israel to agree to a proposal by Saudi Arabia for recognition by all Arab countries in exchange for withdrawing from all lands Israel gained in the 1967 Six Day War. In his own country, Hariri said Hezbollah, a group designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization as Hamas is, had become part of the Lebanese political process. "They want to be part of rebuilding Lebanon," he said. Another Lebanese figure, the country's most senior Shiite Muslim cleric, said Friday he expects Hamas to negotiate indirectly with Israel. Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah also criticized the United States and Europe for taking the stand that Hamas could not form a Palestinian government unless it drops its aim of destroying Israel and renounces violence. "We regard the rejection of the election results by America and Europe as a rejection of democracy and the Palestinian people's choice," said Fadlallah, who is the religious leader of Lebanon's 1.2 million Shiites. Fadlallah praised Hamas' unexpected win Wednesday as a vote for the group's armed struggle against Israel. "The Palestinian elections produced a political surprise: the Hamas movement winning an absolute majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council," Fadlallah told some 5,000 worshippers in a sermon after Friday prayers at a mosque in southern Beirut. "This indicates that the Palestinian people have elected the Islamic resistance to a position of political responsibility." "Hamas will hold negotiations indirectly with the enemy to achieve liberation," Fadlallah said. He did not suggest how the indirect talks could be conducted, but he said Israel could facilitate them by stopping its attacks on the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Negotiations cannot take place "while Israel is moving with all its destructive powers against the Palestinian people" as is the case now, Fadlallah said. Fadlallah attributed Hamas' win to its "proven sincerity in working to liberate the land and people by offering martyrs at the level of leadership and base." He was referring to the Hamas leaders who have been killed by Israel, often in airstrikes on their cars, as well as the more junior members slain in the conflict. Fadlallah was the spiritual mentor of Hezbollah during the 1980s, when the group was blamed for kidnapping Westerners and bombing American targets in Beirut that killed a total of more than 260 Americans. However, Fadlallah has long since distanced himself from Hezbollah, which never admitted a role in the kidnappings and bombings. Lebanese parliamentary Speaker Nabih Berri said that the Hamas victory was such a political earthquake that it amounted to "a coup" that would have repercussions across the Middle East. "What is required is a new assessment of the entire region based on the Palestine elections," Berri was quoted as saying by An-Nahar newspaper Friday. "The Lebanese, in particular, should act quickly to solve their problems." Earlier Friday, the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, said that Hamas must accept the Arab League's Beirut Initiative, including the recognition of Israel, despite the organization's declared positions. Moussa made the statement at a discussion dealing with the results of Wednesday's Palestinian Legislative Council elections at the Davos Economic Forum meeting. The initiative, which advocates an Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 cease-fire lines and the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, was rejected by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon as soon as it was approved by the Arab League in 2002.