Hamas' victory must not serve as a pretext for the Israeli government to stop the political process and disengage from dialogue with the Palestinians. About three weeks have passed since the political earthquake of Hamas' victory, and it is now possible, to a large extent, to assess the direction of developments in the West Bank and Gaza.

Hamas leaders apparently have a decent chance of succeeding in their goal of forming a national unity government. They list three elements that will comprise the new government: Hamas representatives, representatives of the Fatah movement and the smaller Palestinian factions, and technocrats. Over the short term, meaning the next few weeks, the current and future Palestinian governments have sufficient funds. The current economics minister, Mazen Sinnukrot, said over the weekend that he received a pledge from the Quartet's representative, James Wolfensohn, for $60 million in assistance from the World Bank to cover the transition period. Combined with the tax monies that the Israeli government has transferred, this enables the payment of salaries and prevents the financial collapse of the Palestinian Authority's institutions.

Though the numerous interviews and political statements that Hamas leaders have given in Cairo, Gaza and Damascus have sometimes been confused and full of contradictions, they nevertheless allow one to clearly discern what is happening to the movement. Its leaders are aware of the urgings of the Arab countries and the international community, but are sticking to the opinion that there is no possibility that they will recognize the State of Israel. However, the tone of their statements has changed. Now, for instance, the Hamas leaders say that the problem is not whether they will recognize Israel, but whether Israel will recognize the rights of the Palestinians.

"In the 1993 Oslo Accords we recognized the State of Israel, and what did we get for it? Nothing," said Mousa Abu Marzook, one of Hamas' overseas leaders. Hamas leadership is seeking clever formulations. Khaled Meshal, the head of Hamas' political bureau, said that his movement cannot oppose the unified Arab stance expressed in the resolution passed by the Arab League summit. That resolution, approved in Beirut, speaks of recognizing Israel and normalizing relations with it in exchange for a full withdrawal and a solution to the refugee problem.

The Hamas journal Al-Ghasala, which is published in Gaza, raised a series of problems in its issue last Friday, which it said that the organization must solve, including how to prevent clashes between the government's powers and those of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, and how to act without abrogating signed agreements with Israel.

Hamas leaders are trying to walk between the raindrops. They will not speak with Israel, but for now, they will allow Abbas and the PLO to continue the diplomatic process. Their representatives in the cabinet will not meet officially with Israeli representatives, but they will allow other ministers to do so - and so forth. They are doing this in order to acquire legitimacy in the region and the world, and also because they suspect that the broad Palestinian public that supported them did so not in order to reject Israel's existence and return to terrorism, but primarily in the hopes that Hamas would establish a properly run Palestinian government.

In the international arena, Hamas has a good chance of succeeding. Russia's invitation to its leaders was the beginning. It seems that neither the European countries nor the Arab world will look for reasons to fight with Hamas and push it into the arms of Iran and the Islamic extremists; instead, they will conduct a dialogue with it.

Against this background, what is needed is an Israeli policy that does not reiterate the shopworn cliche of "it is now clear that we have no partner on the Palestinian side; there is no one to talk with." After Yasser Arafat was declared a non-partner because he supported terrorism, the Palestinians elected Abbas as their leader - the man of whom Bir Zeit lecturer Nazmi Juaba said: "More of a partner than Abu Mazen [Abbas] we cannot create for you." Abbas is still around. He is a chairman with real powers, he has support in the region and worldwide, and he is seeking a way to work with both the new Palestinian government and the government of Israel. The latter must not boycott the Palestinians because of Hamas.