Five minutes to midnight for Hamas

Just weeks in office, the elected Hamas leaders in the Palestinian territories have further isolated themselves by unconscionably condoning Monday's suicide attack in Israel. Time is running out for this radical, anti-Israel Islamic group to come around.

Before the deadly bombing carried out by the separate Palestinian terrorist group Islamic Jihad, Hamas had dropped hints that it might recognize Israel if it withdrew to its borders before the 1967 war, which would mean a full Israeli pullout from the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Such a change in public position would mark a significant step forward for a group long dedicated to destroying Israel.

But the unexpected winners of January's Palestinian parliamentary elections may not have the luxury of gradually working out internal divisions between moderates and hard-liners.

The financial squeeze that Europe, the US, and Israel have put on Hamas as a designated terrorist organization is already taking effect. While Iran and Qatar have pledged $50 million each to help fill the gap, that's nowhere near enough to support the roughly $150 million a month it takes to run the Palestinian Authority government.

Arab nations often fail to live up to their pledges to the Palestinians, and it's hard to imagine their limited donations as a substitute for the $1 billion which Europe and the US are withholding - though humanitarian aid is still flowing. They rightly demand that Hamas recognize Israel, forswear violence, and abide by past Palestinian-Israeli agreements.

At the same time, the Hamas strategy of a cease-fire with Israel appears in jeopardy. While it has more or less refrained from violence for over a year now, other militant groups such as Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades are stoking violence, which is meeting Israeli retaliation. These groups are forcing a day of reckoning for Hamas, and its decision this week to condone the killing of nine Israelis as legitimate Palestinian self-defense indicates that hard-liners currently have the upper hand.

If Hamas wants to keep support of Palestinians and avoid a societal breakdown that may accompany economic collapse or another cycle of Palestinian-Israeli violence, it must change sooner rather than later.

It's not easy to cross a long-held (and failed) doctrine, but it can be done. Israeli leaders Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert showed this by reversing themselves on Jewish settlements in Gaza and founding a new political party to withdraw from parts of the West Bank. Yasser Arafat showed it by signing the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords and recognizing Israel's right to exist. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas did the same by denouncing violence (including Monday's attack). And Hamas's shaky cease-fire hints at possible evolution.

By reacting to the bombing with military restraint against Hamas, Israeli Prime Minister designate Olmert allows room for the pressures of governing to force needed change in Hamas. As Mr. Sharon once told him, "What you see from here [as prime minister] is not what you see from there [not being prime minister]."

Hamas blew its first big test by approving Monday's fatal bombing. It will undoubtedly have another chance to get it right, but it won't have time for many more opportunities.

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