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Hamas' past casts shadow over peace plans

Skepticism as Hamas prepares to take Palestinian helm


Mahmoud Abbas

RAMALLAH, West Bank (CNN) -- The future of the Middle East entered a new era of uncertainty Thursday, as the militant Palestinian opposition group Hamas snatched power from the ruling old guard and made skeptics of many key players in the peace process.

In conceding Fatah's defeat, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas urged Hamas to keep negotiations moving forward, but the U.S. seemed doubtful and Israel responded by demanding that the Palestinian Authority disarm the new ruling party "and the other terrorist organizations."

The imminent power shift represents a stark change in ideologies: Abbas has long been a conduit of the White House-backed road map to Middle East peace. Hamas, on the other hand, has called for the destruction of Israel and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. (A Hamas explainer)

Hamas, however, has operated a network of successful social and charitable organizations for Palestinians, and Abbas did not appear to abandon hope that the peace process could move forward as long as the fundamentalist Islamic group can earn "the respect and confidence of the international community."

"Together, we will work to achieve the dream for which our martyrs have fallen," he said. "It is a dream of setting up a democratic state based on our national unity, based on democracy, based on political pluralism and based on maintaining equality among the people, equality between men and women, according to our declaration of independence."

It sounds like a tall order for a region that has been wracked with violence for decades, but Hamas leaders have already indicated that they are willing -- at the very least -- to honor a year-old cease-fire with Israel.

About 1,073,000 Palestinians voted, a turnout of 77 percent of registered voters, said Hana Naser of the Central Election Commission. (The reaction to the election)

An exit poll Wednesday indicated Hamas would do well, likely blocking Abbas' Fatah from maintaining its majority in the 132-seat Palestinian Legislative Council.

But Hamas' satisfaction transformed to glee over the next day as Naser announced Thursday that Hamas not only blocked a Fatah majority, but also won the majority itself, taking 76 seats in parliament. (How the power breaks down)

Fatah, which has been in power for about 40 years, won 43 seats, and a handful of fringe parties and independents won the remaining 13, Naser said.

A final result that might have some slight change will be released within a day or two, he said. All but 5 percent of the votes have been counted, he said. (Read full story on election)

But some Palestinian power brokers saw no need to await a final count, as Fatah lawmaker Saeb Erakat said, "We have lost the elections; Hamas has won."

As the reality of Hamas' win set in, American and Israeli leaders -- including hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu, who is running for Israeli prime minister -- began sharing their concerns.

Netanyahu said the Hamas victory is "bad news no matter how they dress it up" and likened the militant group to Iran, whose president has also called for the destruction of Israel. (Watch Netanyahu talk about what it means for Israel -- 7:23)

The former prime minister and leader of Israel's Likud Party added that for Israel to seriously discuss peace with Palestinians, Hamas would have to drastically change its philosophy.

"I think what is required is a revolution," Netanyahu said, adding that among other good-faith efforts, "they'd have to jail the terrorists, including some of their own people."

President Bush -- whose Middle East policy includes support for emerging democracies -- also said Thursday he would not deal with Hamas unless it renounced terrorism. (Watch Bush face tough questioning -- 5:37)

"I don't see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform," Bush said. "We're interested in peace."

Former President Jimmy Carter, who headed the mission to monitor the Palestinian election, concurred with Bush, saying that the U.S. should not negotiate with Hamas unless it "accepts the two-state solution and acknowledges the fact that Israel is a nation deserving of recognition."

Many in the Palestinian government have already given up their posts, as Abbas has accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority Cabinet also resigned, Erakat said.

The resignations prompted Bush to urge Abbas to remain at the helm.

"We would hope [Abbas] would stay in office and work to move the process forward," Bush said.

That view was not shared by some angry Fatah supporters, who openly blamed Abbas for the tidal shift in Palestinian politics.

A gang of Fatah gunmen marched through the streets of Gaza City on Thursday, chanting, "You traitor! You collaborator! You should accept the responsibility of the elections' result!"

In Jerusalem, the Israeli Cabinet met in emergency session, where former defense minister and Knesset member Ephraim Sneh called the Hamas victory "a blow to the peace process."

"Israel, I believe, could negotiate with a Fatah-led government, could strike a deal with a Fatah-led government. I doubt we could do it with a Hamas-led government," he said.

The United Nations and European Union seemed more hopeful that the Hamas government could operate productively and peacefully.

"We are prepared to work with any Palestinian government, if this government seeks peace, using peaceful means," said Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the EU's external relations commissioner.

Added Alvaro de Soto, the United Nations envoy to the Middle East, "Let's judge the participants in the government by what they do, not by what they have said in the past."

Though there has been no denunciation of their long-held views on Israel, Hamas members said they were not as concerned with the peace process as they were with improving the lives of Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Ismail Haniya, Hamas' leader in Gaza, told several media outlets that Hamas believes it can operate a government without disarming.

"The Americans and the Europeans say to Hamas: Either you have weapons or you enter the legislative council. We say weapons and the legislative council. There is no contradiction between the two," Haniya said.

CNN's John Vause, Guy Raz and Ben Wedeman contributed to this report.

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