JERUSALEM -- Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert met with top Israeli military and political officials yesterday to discuss the growing likelihood that the militant group Hamas could dominate this week's Palestinian elections.
The ascendance of Hamas has alarmed Israel, which seems to have been caught off guard by the group's surging popularity before Wednesday's vote.
Hamas has killed hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings and remains committed to Israel's destruction.
''What Israel has to do is the big question," Cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi said before the meeting yesterday. ''We have to think hard and explore all the options."
The United States and the European Union also have been scrambling to figure out how to deal with Hamas. US officials confirmed yesterday they have been directing money to promote democratic parties in the election but denied the move was aimed against Hamas.
Hamas has won over the Palestinian public in its first run for the legislature by focusing on domestic concerns, halting corruption, and restoring law and order to the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
In contrast, the ruling Fatah Party has been unable to shed its corrupt image or overcome infighting. Recent opinion polls indicate that the two movements running even.
While some security officials privately support a dialogue with Hamas, top leaders, including military chief Lieutenant General Dan Halutz and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, say the group must disarm and revoke its charter calling for Israel's elimination.
''Regarding the elections in the Palestinian authority, there are three options: that Fatah wins, that Hamas wins, or anarchy wins. One of these results could put all progress back several years," Halutz told an academic conference yesterday, apparently referring to Hamas and warning that violence could follow the election.
Commentators said Olmert's meeting, which included the army chief, head of the Shin Bet security agency, and the justice and defense ministers, reflected a failure by Israel to detect Hamas's growing popularity, despite its strong performance in Palestinian municipal voting in recent months.
''Their assumption was Fatah will handily win any election," said Mouin Rabbani, an analyst with the International Crisis Group based in Jordan.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has said he hopes Hamas would tame its positions once it formally joins the political system, but other Fatah officials sent mixed signals over whether they would work with the Islamic group. Palestinian Information Minister Nabil Shaath, a top Fatah official, said Hamas must accept the principle of peace with Israel if it wants to share power.
But Fatah's top candidate, Marwan Barghouthi, a jailed Palestinian uprising leader, said yesterday that ''Hamas will be part and parcel of the Palestinian Authority" after the vote. Barghouthi was interviewed in an Israeli prison by Al-Jazeera, the Arab satellite television station.
The United States and the EU consider Hamas a terrorist group, and both have said millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians could be jeopardized.
The US Agency for International Development has used a special $1.9 million budget to promote democratic parties in the Palestinian election, said Micaela Schweitzer-Bluhm, a US Consulate spokeswoman in Jerusalem.
She denied that the money, used in part to clean streets, distribute free food and water, and help fund a youth soccer tournament, was used to boost Fatah's prospects.
Behind the scenes, US officials are considering the possibility of distinguishing between Hamas legislators tied to violence and those who are not, a position Israel rejects. European diplomats said they would decide what to do after election results are in.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip have been plagued by chaos and lawlessness in recent months, and some armed groups have threatened to disrupt the voting.
Visiting election commission offices yesterday, Abbas was resolute. ''Orders have been issued to security forces to strike with an iron fist against anyone who would try to sabotage this election," he said.