Turning Islamists into democrats

The news from the greater Middle East has been so discouraging this summer, one almost can't bear to look. More deaths in Iraq, a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan, and the Lebanon war. But do look now. An unlikely spot is showing hopeful signs.

Political leaders in the Palestinian territories say they have struck a deal to form a new unity government between Islamist Hamas, the terrorist organization which won parliamentary elections last January, and the secular Fatah, whose leader, Mahmoud Abbas, holds the presidency.

The encouraging aspect of this breakthrough is not the coalition government per se, but the terms on which it would be built. For if the present Hamas-run government is willing to accept United Nations resolutions and previous Arab summit agreements that implicitly recognize Israel – as seems to be the case – then there is a chance of restarting peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Every positive turn in the Palestinian-Israeli saga must be treated with caution, as this long story seems to be one more of hopes dashed than of dreams of peaceful coexistence fulfilled.

But several factors are now at work that look to be pushing the concerned parties in the right direction.

One of them has been the pressure of international sanctions led by the United States, the European Union, and Israel. Those kicked in after Hamas took office in March and refused to recognize Israel and renounce violence against it.

The sanctions have had a debilitating effect on the Palestinian economy, with the government unable to meet payroll. Hamas turned to Arab allies such as Iran, but that aid simply has not been enough to give the government any breathing room.

And this has not gone unnoticed by the Palestinians themselves. A practically minded people (the majority, unlike the Hamas government it elected, wants peaceful coexistence with Israel) held massive strikes in recent days. Teachers, doctors, and other civil servants demanded that they be paid.

What is unfolding is nothing less than democracy at work. An elected government accountable to the people, is indeed being held accountable. Granted, Fatah has encouraged the protesters, but that doesn't change the fact that a government is still responsible, ultimately, to an electorate as a whole, and not just to a political party or faction.

The Lebanon war may also have had a positive effect on Hamas. Perhaps Israel's strong use of force has sobered Hamas. If it continues with its rocket-lobbing and Israeli-soldier- kidnapping campaign (fortunately, no suicide bombers of late), can it expect a similar hammering?

Meanwhile, Israeli leader Ehud Olmert would like to meet with Palestinian President Abbas (to his credit, Abbas has been steadily pushing the unity deal) to revive the road map to peace. Mr. Olmert has abandoned the idea of unilateral withdrawal from most Palestinian territories.

It's not easy for terrorists to change their stripes. But it is possible, as the IRA in Northern Ireland has shown. Sanctions and Israeli force seem to be having an effect, but so does a Palestinian democracy which Hamas signed on to.

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