RAMALLAH, West Bank (AFP) - Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas was set to ask Hamas to form a new government after its stunning election victory plunged the stalled Middle East peace process into fresh turmoil.
Prime minister Ahmed Qorei resigned immediately Thursday after conceding that the long-ruling secular Fatah faction had been defeated by the Islamist movement which was contesting its first ever parliamentary election.
Hamas said that it would open negotiations with Abbas about forming "a political partnership" with Fatah and other parties, as Israel made clear it would have nothing to do with a government that included Hamas.
As Abbas urged all parties to respect the result of only the second ever Palestinian general election Wednesday, international players such as the United States and Europe made clear their unease at the outcome.
Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erakat said that Hamas, which refuses to acknowledge Israel`s right to exist and has been behind the majority of attacks in a five-year uprising, must now assume full responsibility.
"President Abbas will give Hamas the task of forming the government, in which Fatah will not participate," Erakat, a leading member of the previously dominant faction, told AFP.
"The victors must assume their responsibilities towards our people in every field -- political, security, economic and national," he added.
Hamas`s campaign traded heavily on disillusionment with Fatah over the stalled peace process, corruption and by claiming its fighters forced Israel to pull out of the Gaza Strip last summer.
However its leaders issued contradictory statements about how it intended to deal, if at all, with Israel if it came to power.
Hamas`s chief candidate Ismail Haniya said the movement would hold talks with Abbas, insisting that it did not want to go it alone.
"We will meet Abu Mazen and the other groups and doubtless we will reach a satisfactory formula for all the Palestian people," he said. "Hamas is not going to work alone, but with the other groups who represent the Palestinian people."
Although the final results were not to be announced until Thursday evening, Qorei was one of a string of Fatah officials who conceded that the game was up.
"It is true that Hamas has obtained a majority and I have resigned to enable president Abbas to choose a new prime minister," said the Fatah veteran.
Abbas himself said in a statement that the results had to be respected as the election had been conducted freely and fairly.
"I urge all the parties to respect the law and accept the will of the people," he added.
The result left the Israeli government in a near state of shock, with ministers ordered to keep quiet until after final results had been announced.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was late Thursday to chair a special meeting of top military brass, senior security officials and close aides such as Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni to discuss the ramifications of the Hamas win.
The prospect of a Palestinian government led by the radical Islamist faction is the biggest crisis to face the Olmert since he assumed power when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a massive stroke on January 4.
Speaking on Wednesday, Olmert had said Israel would never do business with Hamas, at least while it remained committed to the Jewish state`s destruction and advocated the use of violence.
"Israel cannot allow Hamas to become part of the Palestinian Authority in its current form," he said.
President George W. Bush made clear in a Wall Street Journal interview that the United States would continue to blacklist Hamas, regardless of the result.
"A political party, in order to be viable, is one that professes peace, in my judgment, in order that it will keep the peace," Bush said.
"And so you`re getting a sense of how I`m going to deal with Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility. And the answer is not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you."
Javier Solana, the foreign policy chief of the European Union, the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority, expressed his disquiet by acknowledging that "these results may confront us with an entirely new situation, which will need to be analyzed by (EU foreign ministers) next Monday."
In France, traditionally one of the Palestinians` closest diplomatic allies, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin expressed "concern" at the result.