A Palestinian pivot

Take a moment for the plight of Palestinian voters, who cast ballots Wednesday in a historic election. Should they pick a party that may govern efficiently but can't or won't talk with Israel, or one that can negotiate but now governs weakly and chaotically?

The choice gets even more difficult. The first party, Hamas, is seeking some sort of Islamic rule - which could end up as undemocratic - while the Fatah Party, currently in power under Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, is largely secular and the legendary keeper of Palestinian nationalism, but is splintered by armed factions and tainted by corruption.

If democracy spreads in the Arab world, as President Bush hopes, voters are likely to face similar choices as the Palestinians do now.

In many nations, radical or militant Islamic groups that enter politics, such as Hamas did for the Jan. 25 parliamentary election, are disciplined and very popular because of their private social welfare activities. Nationalist and largely secular parties, most of which already rule with an iron hand, aren't popular, due to poor delivery of services and jobs.

No wonder, then, that Palestinian voters are in a quandary. They deserve respect for making a difficult decision, and gratitude for using the ballot box to settle differences.

The ruling Fatah Party will probably win the most seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, reflecting hopes that only it can negotiate a full-fledged Palestinian state with Israel. But the party may not gain enough seats to rule without giving a few key ministries to Hamas. In recent municipal elections, Hamas won about 30 percent of the vote, and it now runs about a third of local government councils.

After the vote, a delicate dance begins, one that could set a precedent in reducing Middle East violence.

Israel and the United States say they won't talk to a Palestinian government that includes Hamas. After all, Hamas has openly backed suicide bombings of Israeli civilians, even though it declared a truce during the elections. But both nations quietly hope pressure for peace among Palestinians will force Hamas to forsake terrorist attacks.

Lured by power and driven by its primary purpose of spreading Islam, the party may indeed follow the polls, which signal a desire for a permanent truce. Hamas has backed a few non-Islamic candidates that may serve as proxies in government and who may be acceptable to Israel. It also appears to have altered its official line from seeking Israel's destruction to weighing a long-term truce if Israel returns to pre-1967 borders (which is unlikely).

Both Israel and Hamas will need to make small give-and-take steps to get around the wall of the terrorist threat and eventually reach an accommodation. Political Islam has rooted itself in the Middle East, and pacifying its militancy can only be done by pushing it into the arena of democracy where the natural tendencies of people toward peace can win the day.

A few Islam experts claim that a religion that sees authority more in the words of its holy book than in the religion's effects on people's hearts cannot accept democracy. In Iran, that appears to be the case so far. Palestinians can prove it otherwise.

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