The neoconservative nightmare of a Hamas government has moved a step
closer, with prime minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh presenting the
names of his proposed ministry to Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas.

At the weekend, Haniyeh gave his most explicit indication yet that he wants to pursue peace with Israel. Interviewed by CBS News,
he was asked “if he could foresee a day when he would be invited to the
White House to sign a peace agreement with the Israelis”, and answered,
“Let’s hope so”.

But pressure from the US and its allies is believed to be partly
responsible for the refusal of other Palestinian groups to join in a
coalition government, as Hamas had hoped. Instead it will rely on its
own members
plus a selection of technocrats and independents.

Abbas still has to approve the new government and its program, but with
Hamas’s clear majority in the Palestinian parliament he has little
choice. And given their level of popular support, probably the least
dangerous place for Hamas to be is saddled with the responsibilities of
government. As Macaulay once wrote in a similar context, “The most
greedy and cruel wrecker that ever put up false lights to lure mariners
to their destruction will do his best to preserve a ship from going to
pieces on the rocks, if he is taken on board and made pilot”.

A very interesting piece in Saturday’s Australian
by Jerusalem correspondent Abraham Rabinovich, suggested that this
effect was already being felt. He quoted an Israeli military source
saying that “Hamas and Fatah had switched roles since Hamas’s election
victory, with the once-radical Hamas adopting a policy of restraint and
once-mainstream Fatah members turning increasingly to terror”.

So if Hamas and Fatah just change places, will we be back to the same
destructive cycle? Maybe, but there is a crucial difference. Hamas has
what Fatah never had, democratic legitimacy – if it ever manages to do
a deal with Israel, there is hope it will be able to make it stick.