Leading article: Hamas must now prove itself

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The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian election last week was unexpected, not least to some of its own leading figures. One of them sounded like a Levantine Liberal Democrat: "We didn't want this. We didn't hope for this. We wanted to be in the opposition." But the basic contradiction of Palestinian democracy should occasion no surprise. Even while Yasser Arafat's Fatah faction retained majority support, that support ensured that the Palestinian Authority remained ambivalent about terrorism.

The question that has to be confronted, not just in Palestine but potentially in other Arab or Muslim countries that we would like to see become democratic, is what happens if democracies elect leaders who are committed to undemocratic means? As Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said yesterday: the parallel with the IRA is not exact, but the underlying dynamic may be similar.

Ever since America's shift to support a two-state solution in historic Palestine, the argument has subtly changed. No longer can Palestinians rely solely on their status as victims of superior Israeli military force. Their proto-state has to take responsibility for two barriers to its credibility: corruption and terrorism. It is thus unsurprising that the Palestinians should have voted for a "clean" party with a harder line on the use of terrorism against Israel.

Now, however, the hard part begins. Hamas has to prove to its voters that it can deliver good government. But it also has to confront the evil of using suicide bombers against Israeli civilians, if the Palestinians are ever to live at peace with their neighbours and if their state is ever to gain international acceptance.

As so often in discussing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dim glimmers of hope are the best that can be discerned. On this occasion, it is the pragmatic reaction from Israel that allows a little optimism. As our correspondent Eric Silver reports, many Israelis are prepared to see their leaders negotiate with Hamas. Over the next few weeks, Hamas will be tested, as will the mood of the Israelis in the election at the end of March. It would be wise for the US and the European Union, while making clear their abhorrence of terrorism, to wait until then before deciding their next moves.