Contrary to initial responses, Hamas’s projected victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections is a positive development. Not, as its apologists claim, because the proximity of power will favor a process of cooptation into parliamentary politics, and therefore strengthen the pragmatic wing of Hamas. There is no pragmatic wing in Hamas, and all differences within the movement–the armed wing and the political wing, Palestine Hamas and Hamas in Syria–are arguably tactical differences. No, the reason is, as Vladimir Ilich Lenin would put it, “worse is better.”
Hamas’s favored outcome was not victory, but a strong showing that would leave Hamas with the best of both worlds: It would remain in opposition (or would be invited to join a coalition as a junior partner) but would impose severe limitations on the Fatah-led government on how to manage its relations with Israel. Hamas could thus claim to reject Oslo, decline to recognize the Palestinian Authority and its commitments under the Oslo accords and the roadmap, and continue to use its rising political clout and its military strength to sabotage any effort to revive the moribund peace process.
What victory does to Hamas is to put the movement into an impossible position. As preliminary reports emerge, Hamas has already asked Fatah to form a coalition and got a negative response. Prime Minister Abu Ala has resigned with his cabinet, and president Abu Mazen will now appoint Hamas to form the next government. From the shadows of ambiguity, where Hamas could afford–thanks to the moral and intellectual hypocrisy of those in the Western world who dismissed its incendiary rhetoric as tactics–to have the cake and eat it too. Now, no more. Had they won 30-35 percent of the seats, they could have stayed out of power but put enormous limits on the Palestinian Authority’s room to maneuver. By winning, they have to govern, which means they have to tell the world, very soon, a number of things.
They will have to show their true face now: No more masks, no more veils, no more double-speak. If the cooptation theory–favored by the International Crisis Group and by the former British MI-6 turned talking head, Alistair Crooke–were true, this is the time for Hamas to show what hides behind its veil.
As the government of the Palestinian Authority, now they will have to say whether they accept the roadmap.
They will have to take control over security and decide whether they use it to uphold the roadmap or to wage war.
There will be no excuses or ambiguities when Hamas fires rockets on Israel and launches suicide attacks against civilian targets. Until Tuesday, the PA could hide behind the excuse that they were not directly responsible and they could not rein in the “militants.” Now the “militants” are the militia of the ruling party. They are one and the same with the Palestinian Authority. If they bomb Israel from Gaza–not under occupation anymore, and is therefore, technically, part of the Palestinian state the PLO proclaimed in Algiers in 1988, but never bothered to take responsibility for–that is an act of war, which can be responded to in kind, under the full cover of the internationally recognized right of self-defense. No more excuses that the Palestinians live under occupation, that the PA is too weak to disarm Hamas, that violence is not the policy of the PA. Hamas and the PA will be the same: What Hamas does is what the PA will stand for.
Continuing to pursue a violent path will automatically switch off all international aid. Perhaps Hamas intends to offset the resulting loss of revenue by hosting Holocaust-denial conferences in Gaza and terrorist training camps in Rafah, but it will still have to explain to the Palestinian public why it’s better to renounce public aid to wage war.
Meanwhile, Hamas will have to confront the Egyptians (and the Jordanians) and tell them what the PA under Hamas now stands for. And Egypt and Jordan will have to change course, accordingly. Egypt has an increased military presence along the Gaza border and several officers in Gaza to help “stabilize” the security situation–which so far has meant keeping the flames low enough not to bother Egypt but high enough not to let Israel off the hook completely. What will Egypt do now? Cooperate with Hamas in Gaza while it dreads Hamas’ twin, the Muslim Brotherhood, at home? Will it act more decisively to stop the ever growing flow of illegal weapons being smuggled into Gaza from the Sinai, or turn a blind eye even as the increased militancy in Gaza might embolden the Brotherhood in Egypt? No more ambiguity for Egypt either.
The Arab world will also be watching wearily. Hamas now will have to show to the Arab world that an Islamic party that wins a democratic election–everyone’s nightmarish scenario–is not as bad as it seems. For now, the Palestinians have chosen an Islamic option over a secular one. Let them have it. Let them enjoy life under Sharia. It is their choice–that is what self-determination is about–and we must respect it. After all, the spectacle of an Arab government that is defeated in a fair and free election, and that as a consequence resigns (resigns!), has no precedent in the Arab world. This is good news. Let’s have some more and put Hamas to the test of democracy: this experience will tell us if Islamists can embark on a road that leads to the Turkish model or whether Palestine will become a Sunni Iran. If democracy succeeds under Hamas’s leadership, there is a legitimate government in power that enjoys support and popularity in Palestine and might be more honest and more competent than its predecessor–not a difficult task, given the ineptitude of Fatah. Otherwise, we can tell once and for all that co-optation is not the way to moderation, but a recipe is self-defeating appeasement.
Hamas hoped that a narrow Fatah victory would allow Hamas to enter government in junior positions while pursuing violence against Israel–much like Hezbollah in Lebanon. Their victory forces them to make a choice now, and the international community, while respecting the democratic verdict of a fundamentally fair electoral process, must hold them to account. The issue is not whether Europe, the U.S., or Israel should talk to Hamas. The issue is whether there is anything to talk about with Hamas, and the burden of proof is on Hamas to demonstrate they are capable of becoming interlocutors. If Hamas meets the true test, namely accepting the road map, renouncing violence, disarming its own terror network, recognizing Israel and embracing the two-state solution, then no obstacle should remain for a dialogue with Hamas. Otherwise, they can taste Israeli steel, courtesy of the U.S. and the full backing of the EU of Israel’s right to defend itself.
Don’t hold your breath though.
In commenting on this electoral upheaval, Jerusalem Post’s editor David Horovitz has written
Some may seek comfort in the belief that an ascent to government could prompt a greater sense of responsibility, a move to moderation. But Hamas’s intolerance is based on a perceived religious imperative. No believing Muslim, in the Hamas conception, can be reconciled to Jewish sovereignty in the Middle East. To deny that, for Hamas, is blasphemy. And that is the ideology to which the Palestinian people, for whatever reason and by their own free hand, have just tied their fate. That is the guiding ideology with which Israel and the West will now have to grapple.
The appeasers and the apologists are already cuing up to argue that Hamas has already embarked on the road to realism. But unless Hamas reneges on its ideology and endorses a new course, then Israel’s claim that there is no Palestinian partner is vindicated. The resulting Israeli policy of unilateralism is vindicated. Israel’s argument that the Palestinians do not want peace is vindicated. Israel’s argument that Islamists’ nuances and differences of opinion are just tactical, not strategic, is also vindicated. And the prospects of a Palestinian state will become even more remote.
The uniform message that the world gives Hamas should thus be: Take off your veil, and expose your true face for the entire world to see in the naked and transparent light of democracy.
–Emanuele Ottolenghi teaches Israel studies at Oxford University.