JERUSALEM -- Israel has dropped its campaign to ban the Islamic Hamas from Palestinian parliamentary elections, a senior official said yesterday, acknowledging defeat after President Bush pointedly skipped repeating the demand in a public appearance with the Palestinian leader last week.
In another election-related development, the Palestinian prime minister said a program is underway to disarm a militant group and bring its gunmen into the security services, a possible pattern for dealing with Hamas as it turns political after nearly two decades of deadly attacks against Israelis.
Israel never made specific threats against the Palestinians in connection with Hamas candidates in the January election, but hinted that it would refuse to remove roadblocks and ease other travel restrictions vital to carrying out a free elections campaign.
Israel says it is still strongly opposed to Hamas participation because its charter calls for destruction of the Jewish state, but it will take no steps to stop it. ''Are we going to go to war on this issue or interfere on this issue? No," the senior official said.
Also, Israel said that if Hamas took part in the Palestinian government, there would be no hope for peace talks. That threat still hangs in the air.
''This organization will not be a legitimate partner for peace," another official said. ''It's Hamas or us."
During the last five years, Hamas has carried out dozens of suicide bombing attacks that have killed hundreds of Israelis. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to make official policy statements.
The turning point came Thursday, when Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met with Bush at the White House.
While warning Abbas that violent Palestinian groups could undermine the democratic Palestinian state-in-the-making, Bush did not mention Hamas by name nor call for its exclusion from the election -- a sign that despite Israel's strong feelings, the United States was not going to press the point.
In three rounds of local elections earlier this year, Hamas did well, forecasting significant inroads into the power of Abbas' Fatah Party when Palestinians vote for a parliament in January.
This is the first time Hamas is running candidates for parliament. Hamas skipped the only other election, a decade ago, complaining that the parliament itself is part of an interim peace accord with Israel, a pact Hamas rejects on religious principle.
Rebuffing Israeli demands to confront Hamas and disarm its cadres, Abbas prefers to achieve calm by persuasion and inclusion in political life.
The effort has been partially successful at best, as violent groups continue sporadic attacks against Israelis, despite a cease-fire declared in February.
When Abbas was in Washington, Palestinian gunmen killed three Israelis in a drive-by shooting in the West Bank, and the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, linked to Abbas' Fatah, claimed responsibility.
Yesterday evening Israeli troops killed a wanted Palestinian gunman in a shoot-out in the West Bank town of Tulkarem, the military said, adding that a soldier was slightly wounded during the exchange. Relatives of the dead man said he was an Al Aqsa activist.
Earlier yesterday, Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei said a project is underway to train Al Aqsa gunmen as police officers and incorporate them into security forces -- a way of neutralizing them.
''We have agreed today to establish five new camps for training and hosting 'stragglers' " from Al Aqsa who have not turned in their weapons, Qurei said. ''We have a plan and we have started implementing it."