Israeli Centrist Party Wins, Hamas Forms Government

The Bush administration has forbidden official contact with the new Palestinian cabinet, led by Hamas, because the militant group is designated as a terrorist organization by both the United States and Israel. Alex Chadwick speaks with Steven Erlanger, Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, about the outcome of Israel's national elections Tuesday — the same day the Palestinian Parliament voted to confirm a new Hamas-led government.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. The Israelis and Palestinians are both building new governments this week. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. The Israelis had an election yesterday. The Palestinians just swore in a new government after elections two months ago. Steven Erlanger is Jerusalem Bureau Chief for the New York Times. He's on the line with us. Steven, no change in the government in Israel. That is, Ehud Olmert and the centrist Kadima party won 28 of 120 seats in parliament. They remain in power. We think, at least. They have the edge to form a new government, but not as much power as they'd expected. So, there are changes.

Mr. STEVEN ERLANGER (Jerusalem Bureau Chief, New York Times): Yes, absolutely. They were hoping for a big bang. In other words, the ability to form a stable centrist majority in Israel for the first time. That was Ariel Sharon's dream when he formed Kadima, but Mr. Olmert, who succeeded him after Mr. Sharon's big stroke, is a much less trusted figure and a paler figure, and people decided not to give him the same kind of credibility. So he's going to have to put together a coalition, which he can do, but it will be a little less stable and a little more awkward and a little more expensive than what they wanted.

CHADWICK: You quote Mr. Olmert in the paper this morning. I think these are remarks from his victory speech yesterday. Here he is addressing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, saying he urges Palestinians, quote, "To accept only part of their dream to stop terror, to accept democracy, and accept compromise and peace with us. We are prepared for this. We want this."

They sound like heartfelt remarks, but the Palestinian government isn't led, really, by Mr. Abbas, is it? I mean, this new government that's just formed is by the Hamas party still pledged to Israel's destruction. What kind of government is there to respond to Mr. Olmert?

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I think his words were sincere, but a little disingenuous, because he knows that's not going to happen. He's going through this notion that he can try to negotiate with the Palestinians, but since that isn't going to work, he will have to act unilaterally. Hamas has a very different problem. No other party is willing to join them in the Palestinian government. So, Hamas, I think, is going to have a very difficult row.

CHADWICK: Can you tell what kind of government the Palestinians are going to have? They've talked about well we'll have some Hamas people, and we'll have technocrats who are actually kind of running things.

Mr. ERLANGER: Well, I think that Hamas' original idea, I mean, they were not particularly ready to govern, and they wanted to govern in a big coalition with Fatah and other parties. And they have a lot of people who support them who are well educated people and devout, but who are not in leadership positions. So, it's very hard to say. I think Hamas wants to keep its promises to the Palestinians, to bring a kind of more religiously-based, sincere form of administration.

And my own notion is that they will go softly, softly, slowly, slowly, and not try to scare anybody. But at the same time, they do not think Israel should be recognized as a permanent state in the land of Palestine. So, we're at a bit of a stalemate. I kind of see this as two parallel unilateralisms.

Mr. Olmert is talking about Israel unilaterally setting its borders. Hamas is going its own way to establish a Palestinian state that would be less dependent on Israel. I don't think there's going to be much serious negotiations between them for some time.

CHADWICK: Steven Erlanger in Jerusalem for the New York Times. Thank you, Steven.

Mr. ERLANGER: Thank you.

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