When it comes to cutting through the thicket of nonsense that’s been written and spoken about Hamas winning the Palestinian election, it’s hard to know where to begin. The Bush administration tosses out vacuous denials and equally vacuous threats that are duly reported in the media as if they were valid foreign policy positions – exhibit A might be Bush himself blurting out that “this is a wakeup call for Fatah.” Uh, no Mr. President, the wake up call is for you; Fatah in the sense that you use the term — the affable Abu Mazen jumping through hoops at your command or apologizing for his inability to do so, but nonetheless waiting patiently, and passively, for you to somehow deliver Palestinian national sovereignty — that Fatah that you speak of is beyond the reach of any wakeup call; it sleeps with the fishes. Abu Mazen will retire quietly to Kuwait when Hamas decides it no longer needs him in place to engage in the occasional evenings of small talk with the Israelis and Americans that the Bush administration dubs a “peace process”; Fatah in the most optimistic case will be revived as a secular equivalent of Hamas, a fighting nationalist organization under the leadership of Marwan Barghouti, that will look to restore its standing through struggle with Israel, and perhaps even governing in coalition with Hamas. In the more pessimistic scenario, Fatah will simply devolve into a bunch of bandit groups led by local warlords. Meanwhile, sit back and enjoy the irony of the Bush administration suddenly insisting that the security forces remain under the direct control of the president rather than be made answerable to the democratically elected government; the exact opposite of the position Washington had taken when Arafat was President and Abu Mazen was Prime Minister.
But wait, it gets worse: Condi Rice — whose self-righteous posturing becomes almost comical in light of her repeated failure, in almost every challenging instance, to grasp the realities of the Middle East — speaks now of the importance of supporting Abu Mazen, who was democratically elected, you know, as if the democratic majority for Hamas is somehow illegitimate. Given the extent of ignorance Rice has displayed about the Middle East, it wouldn’t surprise me if she was actually unaware that Arafat, too, was democratically elected, in an election rather similar to the one that elected Abu Mazen — in the sense that Hamas didn’t run, and there was no serious opposition candidate. (And one wonders whether Condi was shown the Palestinian polls that demonstrated that had Marwan Barghouti run against Abu Mazen from inside his prison cell, he’s have won handily.)
The administration that proclaims its mission as spreading democracy now seeks to punish the Palestinians for using their votes to get rid of a corrupt and decrepit regime (that happens to be headed by a U.S. ally). Shades, here, of Kissinger’s rationale for the coup in Chile: “We can’t stand by and let a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its own people.” The Bush people are so tragically out of touch with the reality on the ground that they spent the weeks before the election funding desperate last-minute projects by local Fatah candidates in the hope of saving their hides. The effect was probably just the opposite: Hamas was only too pleased to point out that these were America’s candidates, knowing that in Palestinian eyes that’s a kiss of death.
Still, we have told-you-so Condi (as distinct from who-knew Condi), who insists that the election result was simply a protest vote against corruption. Sure it was, the corruption of the administration of, uh, Abu Mazen. But frankly, to attribute the result simply to corruption is to ignore the obvious: The Palestinians are not stupid, and if they saw Fatah as tainted by corruption but nonetheless indispensable to the achievement of their national goals — ending occupation and dispossession — they would have held their noses and voted for Fatah. Palestinians according to the polls still overwhelmingly favor a two-state solution.
So, no, Condi, it’s not only about corruption — in fact, the self-serving venality of so many Fatah leaders may itself have been an expression of the political bankruptcy of the Fatah of Abu Mazen, and Arafat before him, which has been leading the Palestinians to nowhere. The Palestinian electorate was able to abandon Fatah for the simple reason that Ariel Sharon, with the backing of the Bush administration, had shown the Palestinians that Fatah was entirely irrelevant to their fate. The New York Times says some U.S. officials wonder whether the election should have been delayed further in order to allow Fatah to gain maximum benefit from Sharon’s Gaza pullout. And to think that these geniuses are paid a salary out of my tax dollars… The only Palestinians to benefit politically from Sharon’s Gaza pullout was Hamas. After all, it was not negotiated with Fatah or Abu Mazen; it was a unilateral action coordinated with Washington, and the Palestinian street deduced that is must therefore have been a victory for the resistance of Hamas and likeminded Fatah elements. Abu Mazen was never going to get the benefit from Gaza no matter how long the election was delayed, but a second delay (remember, they were supposed to be held last summer) would have doomed his party to an even heavier defeat.
The Palestinians simply decided to move on rather than maintain the illusion that Abu Mazen somehow had a diplomatic strategy that would deliver their national goals. Conventional wisdom after 2001 was that the Palestinians, through their intifada, had elected Ariel Sharon to lead Israel. And five years later, it may be argued that Sharon elected Hamas.
Hamas’s triumph has a parallel in Fatah’s own history: Hamas has identified itself as the party that will take the Palestinians’ fate into their own hands, in contrast with Abu Mazen’s Fatah which had left the Palestinians’ fate dependent on the goodwill of the United States and Israel. And that’s exactly how Fatah came to power in the PLO in 1968, by articulating a line of Palestinian independence and struggle, sweeping aside the earlier leadership that had relied on Arab regimes to save the Palestinians.
Huff and puff as she might, Condi Rice can’t dodge the complicity of the Bush administration’s policies in getting Hamas elected. Commentators who wondered what the Hamas victory would mean for the “peace process” were missing the point: What peace process? The last substantive political negotiations between the two sides were held at Taba in January of 2001, five months into the current intifada and three weeks before Sharon was elected. But Sharon came to bury Oslo, and he succeeded in spectacular fashion – mostly because Sharon, as Condi’s erstwhile mentor Brent Scowcroft so bluntly put it in a dinner with her about a year ago, has the Secretary of State and the President “wrapped around his little finger.”
The U.S. bought into the idea that the problem of violence would have to be solved in a vacuum, without any movement on the question of the occupation (or what Shimon Peres called a “political horizon” without which he believed there would be no progress). No Palestinian leader was going to be able to disarm the militias outside of a clearly defined process to end the occupation with its checkpoints and restrictions, and while Israel continued to expand its illegal settlements on their land. But rather than recognize that Sharon’s position precluded any peace process, the administration simply adopted and echoed Sharon’s mantra that no negotiations were possible first with Arafat, and then with Abu Mazen. (It’s hard not to laugh when you hear Israeli leaders say “Oh, no, we can’t negotiate with a government headed by Hamas…” when they hadn’t bothered to negotiate with a government headed by Abu Mazen, either!)
Instead, the Bush administration gave Israel license to go it alone, define its own borders, build a wall cutting deep into Palestinian lands and cutting them off from Jerusalem, expand settlements and so on, all the while imagining that Palestinians would buy into Washington’s fantasies about lame-duck Abu Mazen being a “strong” leader who would deliver peace and national salvation. It was, quite simply, inevitable that Fatah would collapse sooner or later in the absence of a peace process or a “political horizon.” (Peres had bluntly warned three or four years ago that the PA would collapse if the political track was put on hold in the way that Sharon and Washington were doing.)
No, you say, what about the “roadmap”? Oy, don’t get me started. I laughed out loud on the subway when I read Condi insisting that, among other things, the test of Hamas’s bona fides will be whether it accepts the “roadmap.” Will someone please inform the Secretary of State that the “roadmap” is rather like a kitschy sunset painting given as a gift by the Americans, which is hung on the wall with rolled eyeballs and politely acknowledged every time they come calling – and, of course, it also doubles as a kind of fig leaf for the Bush administration when it stands accused of going butt naked when it comes to any serious engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s simply a set of hypotheticals. Of course, Hamas could choose to hang the picture and mutter approvingly, but why would it bother?
The election of Hamas is not a threat to the peace process; it’s a symptom of the failure of that process. And the Bush administration’s passivity, and its encouragement of Sharon’s unilateralism, contributed in no small part to that failure, and therefore to the victory of Hamas. (I mean, has everyone really forgotten the warnings of years ago from the Fatah moderates and the Israeli doves that failure to reach a deal with Fatah would leave Israel to have to deal with Hamas? It really was that obvious.) For the decade of Oslo, West Bank Palestinians had stood by and watched Fatah leaders enriching themselves while the Israelis continued to grab their land and choke off their economic life. Fatah had come to represent Palestinian powerlessness as Sharon bulldozed his way around, remaking the landscape of the West Bank and Gaza to his own specification knowing that the only consequence would be the sound of Saeeb Erekat complaining to Wolf Blitzer. It’s hardly surprising that Hamas managed to cloak itself in the mantle of the redeemer of Palestinian national dignity and subjectivity.
But scarcely pausing to ponder the scale of the setback she helped author, Condi Rice segued effortlessly into scolding the Palestinian electorate and the party they chose to lead them. The Palestinians want to live in peace, she told them. And to be part of a Palestinian government you have to renounce violence and recognize Israel. Hmmm. Seems that the Palestinian electorate doesn’t quite agree. Democracy can be such a drag…
Reggae legend Peter Tosh, of all people, once summed up the condition of the Palestinians more succinctly, and more melodically, than even Edward Said. In his late 70s anthem “Equal Rights” (which specifically mentions the Palestinians) Tosh opens with the observation “Everybody’s crying out for peace, none is crying for justice.” Sure the Palestinians want peace, but they want their rights, and their dignity. Like Tosh, the Israelis understand exactly why the Palestinians are fighting. Ehud Barak on the way to winning the 1999 election in Israel was asked by a TV interviewer what he’d have done if he’d been born Palestinian. Without hesitation, he responded, “Join a fighting organization.”
The premise of the peace process was always that the Palestinians would stop fighting and the Israelis would end their occupation. I detect in the statements of Hamas on the question of negotiations a congruity with that broad approach. But they’re not going to symbolically renounce violence without any quid pro quo. (And their terms will always be far tougher than Fatah’s ever were; their negotiating model is Hezbollah.)
As for the demand that Hamas now “recognize Israel” or it won’t get any funding from the U.S. and the EU, one need only note that if the same standard were applied in Iraq, the U.S. would have to cut off support to the Iraqi government, too, since it is dominated by Shiite parties that have signed a declaration committing them, among other things, to refrain from recognizing Israel. Indeed, on this score, Hamas is not necessarily any different from much of the Arab mainstream. Indeed, the Arab League urged Hamas to adopt the “Beirut” principle of extending recognition to Israel if it agrees to withdraw to its 1967 borders.
Formal recognition of Israel by Hamas is unlikely any time soon. Fatah only amended the PLO charter to recognize Israel some five years after the Olso Accords were announced. And the Likud, which was Sharon’s party of power until a couple of months ago, still has within its platform a clause strenuously rejecting any talk of a Palestinian state anywhere west of the Jordan River.
But whatever its symbolic positions are, Hamas is led by clever, pragmatic men, who will clearly recognize Israel as an intractable strategic reality, that cannot be beaten by the Palestinians. Their own political objectives now given them no incentive to escalate a confrontation with Israel. They’ll maintain their truce in order to pursue a wholesale cleansing and rebuilding of the corrupt and weakened Palestinian institutions. Assuming control of the PA is a huge step for Hamas, affirming the independence and vitality of Oslo institutions it had once mocked. In 2001, Hamas could send a suicide bomber to Tel Aviv, then stand by shrugging as Israel pulverized every PA target it could find. Hamas had no stake in those institutions. But now that Hamas has taken responsibility for the PA institutions and the wellbeing of the Palestinians, it has a return address: Israeli retribution for any attack will be far more painful to Hamas’s goals than the loss of individual leaders to assassination.
Instead, Hamas, I suspect, will offer the Israelis pragmatic coexistence, tough practical negotiations on specific, immediate issues, perhaps even “a non-belligerency agreement, for a lengthy and indefinite period.” That phrase, by the way, is Sharon’s, articulated in an April 2001 interview in which he explained his view that no political settlement with the Palestinians was possible in this generation. Curiously enough, that’s a position shared by Hamas. A long-term Hudna, perhaps, but the conflict cannot be formally signed away.
Still, many of its leaders already express a two-state conception of the foreseeable future, and practical coexistence, at least in the short term, appears to be their objective, and the terror weapon will become far more costly and dangerous to maintain. The logic of the choices they’ve made will dictate moderation, although at the same time they’ll face the tricky challenge of finding a response to Israel’s creeping annexation of large swathes of the West Bank. No outcomes are predetermined here, and the coming months will no doubt see fierce battles within Hamas over its direction.
The outcome of those battles will be very important to the prospects for stability and security in the lives of both Palestinians and Israelis. And the positions adopted by the Israelis and Americans could have a substantial impact on how those struggles are resolved. The initial responses from both quarters have not been encouraging. Israel is holding back taxes owed to the PA, but that’s primarily a hedge by acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert against the challenge from Likud. The U.S. can’t afford to restrict itself to scolding and warning the new Palestinian government. Engagement is vital at this point, and the grownup position – as articulated by the Europeans – is that Hamas must be judged, in the new situation, on its actions rather than on the contents of its slogans, songs and manifestoes. There is, strangely enough, an enhanced prospect for security and stability in the new situation, if it’s smartly managed on all sides. That, of course, is a big if.