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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Anticipating Hamas Victory, Palestinian Cabinet Resigns - New York Times

Anticipating Hamas Victory, Palestinian Cabinet Resigns - New York TimesJanuary 26, 2006
Anticipating Hamas Victory, Palestinian Cabinet Resigns
By STEVEN ERLANGER
and GREG MYRE

RAMALLAH, West Bank - The Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, and his government submitted their resignations Thursday as the radical Islamic faction Hamas appeared to have scored a major upset and defeated the ruling Fatah party in parliamentary elections.

However, no official results were expected until Thursday evening.

Fatah, which has dominated Palestinian politics for decades, was favored in Wednesday's election and exit polls released after the polls closed projected Fatah as the winner by a narrow margin.

But on Thursday morning, Hamas leaders claimed their own count showed that the group was winning an outright majority in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council. Sixty-seven seats are needed for a majority, and Ismail Haniya, a senior Hamas leader, said the group expected to at least 70.

The Palestinian Central Elections Commission had not released any results as of Thursday afternoon, but said preliminary figures would be announced in the evening.

Fatah did not formally concede defeat, but in announcing his resignation, Mr. Qurei, seemed to indicate a Hamas victory was likely.

"If it's true, then the president should ask Hamas to form a new government," Mr. Qurei said. "For me, personally, I sent my resignation."

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority and the Fatah leader, was elected a year ago and his position is not affected by Wednesday's vote. However, Mr. Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, wants to restart peace negotiations with Israel, and there is no realistic possibility of that happening if Hamas leads the next Palestinian government.

Israel calls Hamas a terrorist group and has always refused to deal with the organization. Contacts between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are already limited and fraught with difficulty, and would only become more so with Hamas in the Palestinian government.

The acting prime minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, said on Wednesday that his country could not accept a situation in which Hamas would be part of the Palestinian Authority if the group remained armed with unchanged goals.

"I will not negotiate with a government that does not meet its most basic obligations to fight terrorism," Mr. Olmert said in a meeting with Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Democrat of Delaware. "We are prepared to assist the Palestinians and Abu Mazen very much but they must meet their commitments."

While claiming victory, Hamas leaders continued to be vague about their plans. If Hamas does have a majority in parliament, it could lead the government without any coalition partners. Hamas says it is willing to work with Fatah and other factions, but has not provided details.

Mr. Haniya said Hamas would hold "intensive discussions" with Mr. Abbas and Fatah. "The main principal of Hamas is political partnership. We should work together."

Mr. Haniya, who held the top position on the Palestinian election list, said that Mr. Abbas had nothing to show for his attempts to relaunch negotiations.

"After one year, what has Abu Mazen achieved? What has he been offered by the Israelis? Nothing," Mr. Haniya said in a press conference at his home in the Beach Refugee Camp in Gaza City. "The problem was not Hamas or the Palestinian resistance. The problem was with the occupation."

Hamas, which was formed nearly two decades ago, calls for Israel's destruction and has carried out dozens of suicide bombings in recent years. Hamas has largely abided by a truce announced early last year, though the group says it is not prepared to lay down its weapons.

Asked if Hamas was willing to consider negotiations with Israel, Mr. Haniya said, "The occupation must first recognize our rights and the international community must exert pressure on them."

After the polls closed Wednesday night, some Fatah supporters, thinking that their party had won, staged celebrations in the streets and fired guns into the air.

On Thursday, as it appeared that Hamas was winning, cities in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip were calm as of the afternoon.

The election itself went off smoothly, with little trouble at any of the more than 1,000 polling stations or in East Jerusalem, where Israel allowed Palestinians to cast "absentee ballots" in post offices.

About 900 foreign observers, including former President Jimmy Carter and the former Swedish prime minister, Carl Bildt, monitored the voting. In a preliminary assessment, an official from a United States delegation called the voting "generally smooth, with sporadic violence and a robust turnout."

The exit polls on Wednesday night, like the pre-election surveys, showed Fatah winning by several percentage points.

An exit poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research showed Fatah winning 42 percent of the national vote and Hamas 35 percent, with a margin of sampling error of 2 percentage points.

Another such survey from Birzeit University indicated that Fatah would get 46 percent of the vote to Hamas's 39 percent.

However, in some district election races, which account for half the seats in the new parliament, an official Fatah candidate and several independent candidates with Fatah links may have split the vote, allowing the Hamas candidate to win.

Eleven separate parties and blocs took part in the election, though it appeared Hamas and Fatah captured all but a handful of seats. The voting marked just the second Palestinian parliamentary election. In the first ballot, in 1996, Fatah was led by Yasir Arafat and faced no real competition.

Hamas boycotted that poll, calling the Palestinian Authority and its legislature a creation of the Oslo Accords, the 1993 interim peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which Hamas rejected.

Hamas maintained this position until last year, when it began competing in municipal elections and fared well with a promise to provide basic services that had been widely neglected by incumbents, most of them tied to Fatah. Encouraged by those results, Hamas decided to run in the parliamentary polls.

Before the election, there was speculation that Hamas might take some cabinet positions in service or welfare ministries, thus joining the government, but in jobs that would not necessarily require contact with Israel.

But if Hamas's outright majority is confirmed, the group may want, and would be entitled to, a full range of ministries, including the prime minister's post.

The Palestinian Authority is committed, under the internationally backed peace plan known as the road map, to dismantling armed militias and "terrorist capabilities and infrastructure."

But inside the government or out, Hamas is considered likely to keep Mr. Abbas from pursuing serious negotiations with Israel on any basis that Israel is likely to accept.

The United States and the European Union also label Hamas a terrorist organization. While American and European officials say they will not meet or deal with Hamas officials, they will continue to have close relations with Mr. Abbas, much as they do in Lebanon, where Hezbollah, a radical Islamic party, has cabinet representation.

Mr. Abbas pressed for these elections against considerable opposition from inside Fatah, convinced that the only way to tame Hamas and turn it from an armed militia to a political party was through representative democracy.

A normally stiff and shy man, Mr. Abbas looked positively happy on Wednesday as he voted with his wife and then posed for the television cameras.

"We are so happy with this election festival," he said.

Palestinians were festive, too, coming out in large numbers to vote in an election they understood to be a vital moment for their own history. Turnout was estimated by officials at nearly 78 percent of the 1.3 million eligible voters.

Mr. Abbas also had words of calm for Israel on Wednesday. "The Israelis should have no reason to be fearful but rather pleased as we are building a democracy which can serve as a base for peace between us," he said. "I am always ready for negotiations with the Israelis although they must want them on their side."

Israel is engaged in its own election campaign and with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon still comatose after a massive stroke, it is not likely any time soon to talk to any government containing Hamas representatives. The Hamas showing and what should now be done will be a major issue in the Israeli campaign, which ends March 28.

Steven Erlanger reported from Ramallah and Greg Myre reported from Jerusaelm.

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