Hands off the Palestinian elections

PRIME MINISTER Ariel Sharon's promise to disrupt next year's Palestinian legislative elections if Hamas takes part is bad news for Israel and bad for America's fight against Islamic extremism. Sharon said that Israel has the power to block roads and use checkpoints to hinder the electoral process. ''I don't think they can have elections without our help," Sharon said, and he's right.

Hamas, the militant Islamic organization that calls for the destruction of Israel, might get 40 percent of the vote, Israel fears, ''and that will set us back 10 years," an Israeli official said. But thwarting elections will set Israel back more than that.

Sharon told reporters that he had run this by President Bush and that Bush had made no comment. This is curious, since Bush has hooked his foreign policy to spreading democracy in the Middle East. Surely, stopping Palestinians from holding inclusive elections runs against everything the president says he is for. After scolding all our Arab allies for not holding open and competitive elections, why would the president offer no reaction to such a threat against democratic Palestinian elections?

The White House later backtracked a bit, saying that Sharon had not been that specific with the president. A spokesman said it is up to the Palestinians to decide who can run in elections, but that Hamas is a terrorist group and the United States will not talk to elected officials who are members of a terrorist group. Yet Palestinian leaders whom Sharon and the United States now embrace were once considered members of a terrorist group.

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, has signed a peace treaty with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and is trying to wean them from violence into a political process. Isn't this the best way to win the struggle against extremism -- Islamic or otherwise? No one doubts that the Irish Republican Army is a terrorist organization, yet they are being brought into the political process in Northern Ireland.

Is not America's strategy in Iraq -- and thus all the pressure to include Sunnis in constitution-drafting -- an effort to defang the insurgency by inclusion rather than exclusion? Aren't we trying to win over Islamic terrorists and commit them to a democratic process worldwide?

Yes, Hamas is a terrorist organization, and, yes, it calls for the destruction of Israel. But Hamas also has its civic side: It helps alleviate the hardships of the people in a manner that is perceived to be more efficient and less corrupt than the Palestinian authorities. Israel wants Abbas to crack down on militants, but how can a weak Palestinian Authority stamp out Hamas when Israel, the greatest military power in the Middle East, has been unable to do so? Hamas is an idea as well as a terrorist group, and, as others have found, ideas are seldom overcome by force.

Hamas could indeed win 40 percent of the vote. In the Middle East the man with the hardest line often wins in times of stress. That's how Sharon came to power, and that's how he could lose power to the opportunistic Benjamin Netanyahu on the right. But people change as circumstances change. Consider Sharon, father of the settlement movement, having the courage to give up Gaza. Given a chance for peace, Israelis and Palestinians have both shown that they can compromise and back away from extremism.

At one time, the entire Arab world refused to recognize the state of Israel and called for its destruction as Hamas does today. Yet Egypt and Jordan now recognize the Jewish state, and all the rest of the Arab League have committed themselves to doing so in principle if something approximating the 1967 borders can be restored.

Some in Hamas will never change their minds, of course, just as some Israelis will hang on to the dream of a Greater Israel to include all the West Bank and Gaza. At its birth, Israel, too, had to deal with its extremists and terrorists who later joined the democratic political process.

Ariel Sharon once believed in a Greater Israel, and his political party was founded on that principle. But, as he expressed so eloquently at the United Nations, he has come to see that the Palestinian people ''are also entitled to freedom and to a national sovereign existence in a state of their own." Most Palestinians, too, have accepted a two-state solution. It is in Israel's interest to allow the Palestinians to hold their own elections without interference from Israel or anybody else.

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company