SAN MATEO — The results may not be to President George W. Bush's liking, let alone millions of worried Israelis and American Jews, but local scholars and peace activists say the Palestinian election was a step in the right direction.

Never mind that Hamas, an Islamic group that has historically called for the obliteration of Israel, won the majority of parliamentary seats — what's important, say members of the San Mateo-based Jewish-Palestinian Living Room Dialogue, is that Palestinians turned out in record numbers for a peaceful election, ending decades of the Fatah party's ineffective rule.

"This is democracy in action," said Elias Botto, a Palestinian Christian who lives in San Mateo. "It's an opportunity for the free world to step in and help support that election, even though Hamas won, because I am sure via negotiation, Hamas will change its attitude towards Israel."

His Dialogue partner, Len Traubman, also of San Mateo, expressed confidence that by gaining political power, Hamas would become less desperate inits rhetoric and actions.

"Now they have a voice, and it's much more plural and participatory," he said. "It's an opportunity to build new relationships, help people who used to feel desperate feel more included and heard."

Joel Beinin, a Stanford University professor of Middle East history, said the peace process depends not on the new Palestinian leadership, but rather on Israel's March elections — and whether they will step back from unilateral actions, such as building the separation barrier, in favor of resuming negotiations.

Beinin admitted that he is "not a big fan of the Hamas program," but credited the party with years of providing municipal and social services, while the Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority has been plagued by corruption and inefficiency. The world should respect the results of "the most democratic election in the Arab world in the last several decades," he added.

"Hamas has changed quite a lot in the last year," he said. "I don't want to give the impression that they have all of a sudden become democratic, peace-loving folks. But many previous Israeli leaders had a long history of terrorism, too, including Prime Minister Ariel Sharon."

At the Oakwood Market in East Palo Alto, the Palestinian Muslim owners said their families and friends in Ramallah just want peace, and had lost faith in the Fatah party's ability to provide it after decades of bloodshed and disappointment.

"It doesn't matter who wins, as long as there is peace," said Hana Nijem, of Brisbane.

Staff writer Nicole Neroulias can be reached at (650) 306-2427 or nneroulias@sanmateocountytimes.com.