The emphatic victory of Hamas, the extremist group that swears by militancy and the destruction of Israel, in the Palestinian parliamentary elections has shaken up the political landscape of the region. Before the election, it was expected that Hamas, also known as the Islamist Resistance Movement, would make a strong showing. But no one predicted its getting an absolute majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council. With this ends the four-decade hegemony of the Palestine Liberation Organisation and its biggest constituent, Fatah, among the Palestinian people, although Yasser Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, will continue as President. The main question now is whether Hamas as a party of responsible government will be different from the group that has taken responsibility for most of the suicide attacks and other acts of terrorism. Clearly, Palestinians do not want to be led and ruled in the old way. They evidently expect the new party in power to provide good governance and also play a strong hand against Israel. Hamas has an efficient track record of providing, through its network of social welfare organisations, education and health facilities in Gaza and the West Bank. But while uncompromisingly opposing Israel's state terrorism and its oppression of the Palestinian people, the militant organisation needs to show a willingness to coexist with the Jewish state and learn to settle disputes and differences through talks, not explosives and guns. In 1988, the PLO accepted the two-state principle and thus the need to negotiate with Israel. But will Hamas resile from its policy of never engaging with the Jewish state?
The larger question is whether Israel will be willing to respect the democratic choice of the Palestinian people in a free and fair election and engage with their new leadership. When he was Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon did not consider even the Fatah Government a partner for peace. He initiated unilateral moves aimed at disengaging from Palestine, including the withdrawal of security forces and Zionist settlers from Gaza. His successor, Ehud Olmert, has declared that talks with the new militant Palestinian leadership are out of the question. With the Knesset elections coming up in March, he is certain to use the Hamas victory as justification for more unilateralism to win votes for Kadima. The right-wing Likud under Binyamin Netanyahu has called for a tough line on Palestine. There could be a total breakdown of communication between the two sides - and worse may follow, depending on the results of the Israeli election. If the international community is genuinely interested in finding a solution to the world's longest-running conflict, it must use its leverage to convince the two sides that the only way forward is intelligent negotiation of a two- nation, two-state solution.