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Wait and see

Navigating the volatile Middle East never has been easy, but the United States finds itself in a particularly difficult situation as the Islamic militant group Hamas forms its first Palestinian government. Hamas has been labeled as a terrorist group by the United States and the European Union, and it has been responsible for countless suicide bombings in Israel. Yet the Bush administration must be patient enough to judge Hamas not by its indefensible violent history or its irresponsible rhetoric but by its actions as it takes control.

The United States actively promoted democratic elections, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice acknowledges Palestinian voters delivered a surprise. Tired of decades of corruption and inadequate public services, they took control away from the ruling Fatah Party and handed Hamas 74 of 132 seats in the parliament. It would be a mistake to interpret the results as an endorsement of terrorism; most Palestinians want security and a stable government that can deliver a better life. An immediate orchestrated effort by the United States to isolate Hamas and doom it to failure before it has an opportunity to demonstrate whether it can evolve from terrorism to governing would only trigger more violence and instability.

Israel's decision to cut off about $50-million a month in tax money to the Palestinian Authority was predictable, given the continued refusal by Hamas to recognize the country. The United Nations envoy to the Middle East correctly points out that the money being withheld is Palestinian money and that the move was premature. But it is encouraging that the Israelis did not go further and impose more penalties that would have made life for Palestinians even more difficult, such as banning Palestinian workers from entering the country. The United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations wisely did not follow suit and are buying time until Hamas forms a government in several weeks.

Taking a wait-and-see approach will provide an opportunity to size up Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas leader who has been tapped to become prime minister and is a relative moderate compared to other outspoken members of the organization. While Haniyeh's initial statements about forming a government sound encouraging, it is difficult to ignore the harsher Hamas rhetoric. Mahmoud Zahar, the Hamas leader forming a coalition government, talked this week of how a temporary state might be established as part of a plan to take over Israel. Those sorts of reckless declarations only further raise tensions, and they illustrate that Hamas has not learned the difference between agitating as outside militants and governing as elected leaders. But the United States and its allies cannot afford to bite on that kind of rhetoric and hope to achieve lasting peace.

It is reasonable that the United States and other Western countries remind Hamas it has a duty to renounce violence, recognize Israel and acknowledge existing agreements. But there are plenty of other countries in the Middle East and Africa that do not officially recognize Israel, and bomb-throwers do not become diplomats overnight. Rice's failure this week to convince Saudia Arabia and other Arab countries to cut off aid to Hamas as Iran pledged its financial support are not good trend lines. The broader U.S. goal should be to keep everyone, including the Palestinians and the Israelis, actively engaged in the peace process.

Political leaders and governments evolve. Israel need only look at the life of Ariel Sharon, who pushed the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza only to return as prime minister decades later and order settlers to retreat. To immediately isolate the Palestinians now and starve Hamas financially only would make conditions worse and create an incubator for more violence against Israel and more contempt for the United States. The odds may not be good, but the best bet for the moment is to set clear expectations for future behavior and to give Hamas an opportunity to evolve before backing it into a corner.