CAIRO (Reuters) - Israel and the United States will eventually adapt to the reality of an electoral victory by the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, opening new opportunities for Middle East peace talks, Arab commentators said on Thursday.
The upset result, which has not been officially confirmed, could also lead Hamas to alter its hardline position, which now advocates an Islamic state embracing all of Israel and the Palestinian territories, they added.
Hamas's victory over the long-established Fatah movement in the parliamentary elections was a victory for democracy in practice in the Arab world, even if it was not what the United States wants when it calls for political change, they said.
Arab governments, many of which face domestic opposition from popular Islamist movements sympathetic to Hamas, had no immediate comment on the election results.
But in the face of widespread admiration for Hamas and a decline in support for Fatah in the Arab world, Arab leaders too are likely soon to start treating Hamas with more respect.
The Egyptian government already has a good working relationship with Hamas despite the historic ties and strategic alliance between Hamas and the opposition Muslim Brotherhood.
Mohamed Habib, deputy leader of the Egyptian Islamist movement, told Reuters that the vote for Hamas meant that Palestinians had opted for the choice of "resistance".
"(Israel and the United States) will have no alternative but to deal with Hamas ... The Americans will submit to this, especially as Hamas does not want to monopolise power," he said.
"The Americans will start secret contacts with Hamas and in fact they have already started. But in the first moments they will exert public pressure to try to make Hamas change some of its ideas," added Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian specialist on Islamist movements in the Middle East.
Mohamed el-Sayed Said, deputy director of the Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, said Israelis would probably be more pragmatic about Hamas than the Bush administration, which has locked itself into an ideological position of hostility towards a group it calls terrorist.
Jawad al-Anani, a former Jordanian minister and now an analyst based in Dubai, said recent comments by U.S. officials setting conditions for dealing with Hamas showed that a negotiating process had already started.
While many in Israel and the West saw the Hamas victory as an obstacle to peace, many Arabs took the opposite view.
"The (Palestinian) voters have answered Israeli extremism with a Palestinian counterpart and I believe only those more extreme sides will produce peace," said Anani.
"We want hardline politicians in the face of the Israeli hardliners. We need that in order to deal with Israel, which gave nothing in return for ... concessions. We need an Arab Sharon," added political analyst Dawoud Sharayan, referring to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
NO EARLY PEACE TALKS
Abdulaziz al-Mahmoud, a Qatari columnist and political writer, said Hamas was in a strong political position after winning elections while retaining its armed wing.
"But they are also humans who want to live in peace, so I believe they will start negotiations with Israel, but as equals, not like the Palestinian Authority that gave so many concessions which were not returned by the Israeli side," he added.
A Jordanian official said: "The Hamas victory could have enormous implications for the peace process and Hamas must now act responsibly to ensure the Palestinians don't lose more."
In practice, none of the commentators expected a formal resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks any time soon and certainly no early breakthroughs on substance.
Israel has been taking unilateral steps without consulting the Palestinians. The United States has not shown signs it is about to push for Middle East peace talks.
"What is being said -- that a Hamas victory is a blow to the so-called peace process -- is not true. There is nothing on offer to the Palestinians other than (living in) large prisons -- Gaza and the West Bank," Sateh Noureddine, columnist at the Lebanese daily newspaper as-Safir, told Reuters.
Rashwan interpreted the Hamas victory as part of the Arab backlash against the Bush administration's "war on terror", seen in the Arab world as a war on political Islam.
Many ridiculed the U.S. position on Hamas and democracy, saying Washington only liked elections if their favourites win.
"What kind of democracy is this that they call for? They hammer us with sermons over democratic elections but only welcome them if their preferred choice wins," said Bisher, a Lebanese businessman who declined to give his second name.
"They (the United States) deal with democracy selectively. If democracy produces the people they want, they will agree and if the opposite, they will not accept," said Mohamed Habib.
(Additional reporting by Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Nadim Ladki in Beirut, Hashim Ahmed in Kuwait, Miral Fahmy in Dubai and Rasha Elass in Damascus)
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