Palestinian Upset

All together now: Oops! Oo-oops!

After the Palestinian elections, the chorus singing that refrain includes not only the Bush administration, Israeli intelligence analysts, the old leadership of the Palestinian Authority, and Palestinian pollsters who were reassuringly wrong all the way through the exit surveys. The people most perplexed by the victory of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, may be Hamas' own leaders. An electoral mandate for governing was the last thing they were ready for, and they quickly sought someone else to do the job, or at least share it. Which is just one of the contradictions in a political contest where the true victors, it seems, are irony and confusion.

Until the elections, the Bush administration seemed to equate promoting democracy with fighting terror. The mistake was to assume linkage between two goals just because they were both positive -- to expect that giving people the chance to elect leaders would necessarily wean them from religious radicalism and from pursuing political goals by blowing themselves up in other people's restaurants and malls.

The linkage failed. Fatah, the Palestinian nationalist movement that has controlled the autonomous Palestinian Authority since its establishment in the mid-1990s, had outdone liberation movements elsewhere by creating a kleptocracy even before gaining formal independence. Meanwhile, its internal disputes have degenerated into gang battles. Voters sought “better government, the rule of law, internal security and safety, better use of national resources, equal rights” and turned to Hamas, says Dr. Ziad Abu-Amr, a political scientist and independent member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Besides that, the Palestinian elections -- like those in Iraq -- took place under occupation, stresses Dr. Menachem Klein of Bar-Ilan University, an expert on Palestinian politics. Palestinians want independence; Fatah had shown it “can't deliver,” he says, and voters turned to Hamas.

That shattered virtually everyone's expectations. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) expected legislative elections to lend greater legitimacy to his rule; instead they've weakened it. Israeli officials had been concerned about Hamas forcing a partnership on Fatah, but intelligence analysts were apparently stunned by the strength of the Hamas showing. Now Israeli intelligence services are reportedly trying to figure out their failures. A respected Palestinian exit poll on election night showed Fatah winning a plurality in the 132-seat PLC. Instead, Hamas won 74 seats, just shy of the two-thirds majority needed to overrule presidential vetoes.

The result proves that the Palestinian public has become more hardline – yet possibly also that Hamas has become less so. It is undoubtedly a terror group, the pioneer of suicide bombings against civilians inside Israel. The Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, best known for its criticism of the occupation, responded to the election by calling for Hamas to stop committing war crimes. At the same time, Hamas is also a social movement that -- says Dr. Reuven Paz, head of the Project for the Research of Islamist Movements -- has built a private “welfare state” within the Palestinian Authority. Hamas clinics, for instance, provide free health care, and the organization runs four hospitals.

And in the past year, it has accepted a truce with Israel, participated in municipal elections, and then run in the national race, within a Palestinian Authority created by agreements with Israel. Those are all signs that “Hamas is drifting toward moderation, not radicalism,” says Palestinian Legislative Council's Abu-Amr. “You don't go into the [political] system to wage an all-out war against Israel. You go there to deal with the internal situation.”

What, exactly, Hamas stands for has become a shimmering uncertainty. The group, notes Paz, has an leadership-in-exile in Damascus, influenced by Iran, away from day-to-day life in the occupied territories, which can permit itself to sound radical. Then there's the local leadership within the territories, a “seismograph” of public opinion, ready to “go with what the Palestinian public wants,” Paz says.

(The Damascus leadership includes Mousa Abu Marzook, whose op-ed in the Washington Post this week hinted that Israel's Jews should enjoy “protection” under Islamic rule. That's a reference to the traditional second-class dhimmi status of Jews in Muslim polities.)

Most Palestinians, it appears, want a better life and identify it with independence in the West Bank and Gaza. The past year, therefore, has been a time of “doubletalk” from Hamas, Klein says. Senior figures, he notes, make opposing comments the same day: “We'll never talk to Israel” along with “We have to get used to the Oslo Accords.” Rather than dissimulation, read that as confusion, the strain of ideology fighting with realities.

The strain will get worse now. Hamas, it's generally agreed, was as surprised as everyone else by the extent of its victory. Its leaders expected a piece of power, a role in the PA government. Instead, they got an undisputed mandate. But for what? Paz estimates that the Islamic Resistance Movement has a steady base of support comprised of about 30 percent of the Palestinian public; the rest of its voters were casting protest ballots against Fatah's foibles. The party, Abu-Amr says, “ran on a national political agenda” with “some Islamic silver lining.”

Trying to impose Sharia law would upset not only secularists -- the Fatah-linked Al-Ayyam paper carried an article on Jan 27 about intellectuals considering asylum in Europe -- but many of the protest voters for the Hamas ticket. Not trying to do so could anger the base. Recognizing Israel and foreswearing terror would be too quick a change for ideologues, and possibly one they are incapable of. Without that change, though, the PA faces a cutoff of Western aid, the bulwark of its budget. That could reduce corruption -- there'll be nothing left to steal. It won't please voters who wanted economic improvement.

And one more irony, perhaps the most painful: The Palestinian vote came in the midst of an Israeli election campaign. Polls (for what they're worth) show a strong majority for parties ready to give up much of the West Bank to preserve Israel's Jewish majority. That's an opportunity for Palestinians -- except that very few Israeli politicians would risk talking to Hamas. Yet if Israel chooses a unilateral pullback while keeping parts of the West Bank, it could boost support for Hamas in its most hardline guise.

In the week since the vote, media reports have described two options Hamas is weighing. One is a unity government with Fatah. For Hamas, that would provide a cover story for not sticking to ideology. So far, Fatah leaders don't seem interested in being their rival's alibi.

The other option is a cabinet of technocrats -- respected professionals that Hamas can accept, but who can take more moderate positions. Abu-Amr has been mentioned as possible minister. In the very best case, that could allow diplomatic contacts with a new Israeli government, while allowing time to test whether Hamas can adjust. Based on recent experience, the last thing we should count on is such a logical outcome.

Gershom Gorenberg is the author of The Accidental Empire: Israel and the Birth of the Settlements, 1967-1977, forthcoming from Times Books.

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