Leading article: Swallow hard and start talking

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Elections, as party leadership candidates in Britain and dictators in Africa know to their cost, cannot be relied on to produce the most convenient results. The Middle East is proving no different. President Bush has called for a democracy that would, in his eyes, automatically produce a series of contented nations committed to free markets and peace with their neighbours. Instead - in Palestine, Egypt and Iran - it is producing victories for Islamic parties that represent, in the eyes of Washington and Jerusalem, the antithesis of what they had hoped.

The result has been not an adjustment to the new political reality but a recourse to measures to drive back the new democratic forces. The US, with European backing, has set itself on a course of confrontation with, and isolation of, the Iran of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt has moved to delay the local elections promised for April by two years. And now we have reports that US and Israeli officials are cooking up a plan to destabilise the new Hamas government of Palestine by starving it of funds and international recognition with the aim of forcing new elections.

How serious, and how authoritative, these plans are has yet to be assessed. It is noticeable that so far both President Bush and his Secretary of State, Condoleeza Rice, have proved remarkably cautious in their reactions to the recent Hamas victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. The White House is acutely aware that, as the President had made such a theme of Middle East democracy, he was hardly in a position to reject its results. But it is also evident that, among conservatives on Capitol Hill and in the administration, there is a strong feeling that this new challenge from Hamas must be faced down and that, if there is some retreat from democracy for the sake of greater stability, that is a price that will have to be paid.

They are wrong, and President Bush's allies, particularly in the Quartet (the UN, Russia and Europe), need to remind Washington of the fact. Democracy is not a means to an end; it is rather a mechanism for establishing and channelling public opinion at any one time. Instead of an obstacle to peace and stability, it should be seen as an opportunity of divining the mood of the citizens of the Middle East and providing the political avenues to meet it. So far the newly-victorious Hamas has shown every sign of restraint as far as Israel is concerned. Until it proves otherwise, its leaders, like the leaders of Iran and the emerging movements in Egypt and other countries, should be approached for what they are - political manifestations of popular mood, to be treated with, not rejected from the outset.

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