by RAY FLEMING
ISRAELI/Palestinian relations entered totally unexplored territory yesterday with the probable election of a majority of Hamas representatives in the new Palestinian parliament and the resignation of the government of the defeated Fatah party. A strong showing by Hamas at the polls had been predicted for some time but not on the scale it has now achieved. It was the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who urged Hamas to participate in elections for the first time and he was widely criticised for doing so. His belief that involvement in representative politics would lead Hamas to relinquish the militancy it has practised for years will now be put to the test since as the majority party it will dominate the new government. As president of the Authority, Mr Abbas's position is not affected by the result of the election but the decisions he now makes about the make-up of the new government will crucially affect the future of Israeli/Palestinian relations and, indeed, of wider peace prospects in the Middle East. In many ways, Hamas' success is very welcome. As a party it has a high reputation for honesty and commitment to the social needs of the Palestinian people. Its problem is its refusal to recognise the right of existence of the Israeli state; this position belongs to its militant past and it was not included in its election manifesto, nor has Hamas been involved in terrorist activities since Mahmoud Abbas persuaded it to observe a cease fire more than a year ago. However, Israel and the United States are already making the most of Hamas' traditional hostility to Israel as a reason for refusing to negotiate with it. But if the peace process is to move forward compromises will be necessary on both sides. There are plenty of grounds for Hamas, or indeed any Palestinian representative, to refuse to negotiate with Israel. President Bush's reaction to these developments yesterday was disappointing. He chose to interpret the Palestinian election result as a rejection of the old guard of Fatah rather than a positive vote for a new political party with a dynamic view of Palestine's future. The voters want peace and prosperity, of course, and they obviously do not see Hamas as an obstacle to achieving those objectives. Nor should Israel and the United States.