Palestinian Elections: In Hamas victory, an opportunity for change

Now what do we do?

After 9/11 the U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East did a U-turn on democracy. Recognizing that stability � the policy goal until then � was not guaranteeing security, the Bush administration committed to promoting democracy in the Middle East; working under the assumption that democracy is an antidote to terrorism. They may be right.

What can be a more spectacular advertisement for the idea that democracy makes politicians out of terrorists than the electoral victory of Hamas in the recent Palestinian elections?

Since its formation in 1987, Hamas [stands for Islamic resistance movement; literally zeal], has become the deadliest obstacle to US and Israeli goals in the region. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas is a quasi state providing several welfare services, such as running schools and clinics and even providing local governance and security functions. Against Israel it has unleashed hundreds of terror attacks, including suicide bombers causing heavy civilian casualties. It has however maintained a ceasefire since February in 2005.

Election Outcome More than a Negative Vote

Hamas’ electoral victory, though surprising is understandable. Firstly; it has been the only Palestinian response to Israeli military and settlement building operations for over a decade. Secondly, it has provided social services that neither the Palestinian Authority � the recipient of US and EU aid and Palestinian taxes � nor Israel the occupier provides. Finally the unmitigated corruption of the Palestinian Authority [PA] and the inability of Mahmoud Abbas the choice of the Bush administration to deliver anything � governance or freedom � made Hamas a more attractive choice for the Palestinians.

Hamas’ victory is not only a rejection of the corruption in the Palestinian authority but also a reminder that the roadmap to peace has not alleviated the daily misery and humiliation that Palestinians experience. The promise of peace that Israeli withdrawal from Gaza had generated has been lost as unemployment reached nearly 50% and the territory was hovering on the border of chaos with the PA failing to provide law and order and also failing to launch any major developmental initiatives.

Hamas’ victory is not just a negative vote against the PA. Just as Israelis turned to Ariel Sharon after the failure of the peace process in 2001, the Palestinians too have now turned towards Hamas after the failure of the roadmap to peace in search of another alternative. The roadmap to peace has been such a failure that Israel under Sharon had already abandoned it to pursue a unilateral agenda of separation by withdrawing from Gaza and building a wall between the two populations in the West Bank.

Both Washington DC and Tel Aviv have expressed dismay and concern at this turn of events and are lamenting the loss of a peace partner. While Condoleeza Rice has expressed US willingness to continue working with Mahmoud Abbas on all matters including the peace process, Israel has repeated its unwillingness to work with Hamas. But Israel and the US maintain that as long as Hamas’ goal remains the destruction of Israel, it cannot be a partner in a peace process that it explicitly rejects.

While I recognize the potentially explosive situation with Hamas, I humbly submit that Hamas’ victory may very well prove to be beneficial to all concerned parties.

The Window of Opportunity

It is common wisdom that a peace deal acceptable to Likud is acceptable to all in the US and Israel. Similarly a peace deal acceptable to Hamas will be acceptable to all in the Arab and Muslim world. Will an organization committed to Israel’s destruction negotiate? Hamas has always negotiated with EU, the US [indirectly] and with other Arab interlocutors. The current ceasefire in place since February is negotiated outcome. While the US, Israel and Hamas may wish to avoid negotiating openly, given their past rhetoric, it is always possible to negotiate through proxies. EU and Egypt can play the role of proxies. Now ironically Israel could have a real partner for peace since Hamas can deliver what PA could never promise, an end to the nightmare of suicide bombers.

The spoiler is now in the saddle and will have to change its outlook, its perspective and its politics if it wishes to remain in the saddle. Israel and the US must handle the situation prudentially not petulantly, and give Hamas the time and space to find a face saving means to alter its agenda and a route to the negotiating table.

Recent statements by President Bush and Congressional leaders threatening to cut of US aid to Palestinian government are counterproductive. It looks as if the US is punishing the Palestinians for taking calls for democracy seriously and will merely be one more thing that the US is doing to make Muslim life miserable. Moreover Iran will step in and fill the gap and thereby increase its influence and reduce US influence on the new Palestinian government.

Hamas has promised to provide clean and efficient governance and they cannot do so without day-to-day cooperation with Israel. For its limited activities it so far relied on funding from Islamist sympathizers in the Arab World. But to govern the territories it will need the financial aid from EU [$600 million] and US [$70-$150 million] and the taxes that Israel collects [$50 million]. It cannot be effective without support and cooperation of all the three players and hence will have to find a way to assuage Israeli fears and earn its cooperation.

In a sense, Hamas’ desire to become a political player and its electoral victory is a victory for Israel. It now, for the first time, has direct leverage over Hamas. It can make Hamas look inefficient and incompetent and Palestinians who have high expectations that their lives will improve may soon turn against Hamas if its promises turn out to be as empty as those made by PA.

Hamas’ victory also gives great credibility to Washington’s claim that it is serious about democracy in the Middle East. It belies the Jihadist claim that the US is anti-Islam. After all President Bush has not only enshrined Islam in the constitutions of two nations � Iraq and Afghanistan � he has facilitated the pathway to power for Islamists – first in Egypt, and now in Palestine.

Nothing serious can anyway happen until Israeli elections are over in March. It is a good opportunity for all parties to chill until then and ponder the new realities. It will help if the decibel level of the rhetoric is kept low. Hamas must maintain the ceasefire and focus on governance. Israel must recognize that peace between Arabs and Jews cannot be piecemeal. It will have to be peace between all Jews [liberal and conservative] and all Arabs [secular and Islamist] in the area.

We now have another window of opportunity to make a breakthrough in this conflict. Let’s not squander this one.

Dr. M. A. Muqtedar Khan is Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware. He is a Non-resident Fellow at the Brookings Institution and the author of Jihad for Jerusalem: Identity and Strategy in International Relations [Praeger, 2004]. His website is www.ijtihad.org


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