Hamas: How a Victory Would Affect U.S. Policy

Middle East expert Edward S. Walker discusses U.S. policy so far toward Hamas and how Wednesday's election may affect that policy. Walker is president and CEO of the Middle East Institute and former Assistant Secretary of State of Near Eastern Affairs and ambassador to Israel.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal this morning, President Bush looked ahead to Hamas's performance in today's election. Mr. Bush said he would not deal with the Islamist group until it renounces its desire to destroy Israel. He said a political party, in order to be viable, is one that professes peace.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

For more on what the Palestinian elections and the rise of Hamas means for U.S. policy, we spoke with Edward Walker. He served as ambassador to Israel and an assistant secretary of state during the Clinton administration. He is currently president and CEO of the Middle East Institute. Walker says Hamas's strong showing will be difficult for Washington to handle.

EDWARD WALKER: For us it means a lot of problems, because we're not going to deal with a terrorist organization. We've made that clear. But there are ways of getting around that problem. It is not going to constitute a majority of the portfolios under any circumstance in the Palestinian government. We still have the president, Abumazin, to deal with. And most of the portfolios will be held by Fatah members who we have dealt with in the past and will be able to deal with in the future.

The real question is what does it mean for the Palestinians, and I think that's where the real changes will take place. You've got an absolute coalition now of people who want to see change, who want to see an improvement in living conditions and want to see the end of corruption. And you have, for the first time, a genuine, real democratic election in the Middle East. So we can't go too far in saying this isn't a good thing.

NORRIS: Now, before the election, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice laid down a bit of a marker. She talked about the criteria for an acceptable Palestinian partner. She said that that would include participation in the peace process, a commitment to preventing violence and the acceptance of Israel's right to exist. Could this new government, with such a strong showing by Hamas, meet that standard?

WALKER: Well, the government doesn't really need to meet it. The president, Abumazin, has to meet it, and he's met it many times in the past. So I'm not sure that it's a disqualifier if Hamas gets into the government. We have to look at where our interests lie. It's not in our interest to see failure. It's not in our interest to see chaos in the Palestinian areas to build more terrorists and create a greater threat to Israel. So we have to be careful how we deal with this issue in the future.

NORRIS: As we just heard in Eric's piece, the United States has been pressuring the Palestinian Authority to disarm Hamas, and so I'm wondering, even so, if the U.S. has to, with these election results, establish a relationship of necessity with them.

WALKER: I don't think we're going to need to deal with Hamas. I don't think that Hamas is going to disarm. They've got 5,000 tough fighters, heavily armed. They've got better arms than Fatah does. They have withstood all of the efforts of the Israeli IDF in the past. They're not going to disarm. They would probably feel that they would be very vulnerable if they did so.

So, while I think it's a great idea, and I certainly hope that they will, in my view, it's not going to happen. And what they may do is try and integrate the Hamas fighters into a Palestinian force.

NORRIS: And you say they won't disarm. Are there any pressure points, though, for the U.S.?

WALKER: Well, the pressure point's obvious. We can bring pressure to bear on the assistance side of the equation. Certainly we can curtail our own assistance, which it would seem to me Congress may do anyway. It'll be a hard road with the Europeans, who seem to be inclined to try and help Abumazin and Fatah at this point, and certainly it would be difficult to convince the Arab states not to help them.

NORRIS: Ambassador Walker, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

WALKER: You bet.

NORRIS: Edward Walker is a former ambassador to Israel and an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.

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