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Who Elected Hamas?

The Nixon-China analogy is growing stale. Every time an extremist takes power anywhere, the starry-eyed immediately trot out the “but it took Richard Nixon to go to China” example as evidence that the newest ideologue to win an election will pull a 180 once he’s in office.

Using this logic, Hamas, now that it has been elected to lead the Palestinian legislature, is in a position both to make peace with Israel and to make it stick, something the more moderate Fatah could not do.

Unfortunately, the Nixon analogy probably doesn’t apply here. Nixon was a pragmatist, not an extremist. Nor was his opposition to recognition of the People’s Republic of China the centerpiece of his worldview. He did recognize China but only because he wanted to. At this point, there is no evidence whatsoever that the leaders of Hamas—in contrast to many of the people who voted for them—want normal relations with Israel. That does not mean they won’t move toward a policy of peaceful coexistence, but if they do, it will not be by choice but because Hamas feels compelled by outside pressure or, more likely, internal necessity.

The bottom line is that there are very few silver linings in the Hamas victory. Striking, however, is the success of the election itself. International observers, led by the U.S. National Democratic Institute, deemed the election “free and fair.” In its report following the election, NDI stated, “through the high turnout in these elections and in the 2005 Presidential election, as well as the notable participation in five rounds of municipal elections in the last year, Palestinians have clearly demonstrated a commitment to democratic elections.” So much for the canard that Arabs are somehow inherently resistant to free voting.

On the other hand, the election results may put the lie to the Bush administration’s view that democratic elections are, by definition, a good thing. Hamas, an organization best known for blowing up civilian buses, won fair and square, suggesting that sometimes elections, in and of themselves, can be problematic—especially if parties competing in them are not required to foreswear violence.

The other silver lining—one that still remains to be tested—is that Hamas can restore order to the West Bank and Gaza. The Bush administration and the Israelis have both repeatedly demanded that the Palestinian Authority dismantle the independent militias and confiscate their arms. That is likely to happen now, but it is not Hamas’s arms that will be confiscated as the Americans and Israelis demanded. They will instead be the confiscators.

So how did this happen? Even Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice claims not to know, saying that her analysts somehow dropped the ball by not predicting the Hamas victory.

The fact is that it was eminently predictable and perhaps even inevitable in the sense that the actions of Fatah, the Americans, and the Israelis made it so.

First, Fatah. The Palestinians were tired of Fatah’s corruption and cronyism. Foreign aid was siphoned off into the pockets of warlords and political hacks. Government payrolls were packed with Fatah loyalists who not only did nothing but were expected to do nothing. With its reputation for incorruptibility and its efficiency in providing social services, Hamas was a natural alternative despite its commitment to Islamic fundamentalism—not especially popular in mostly secular Palestine. Voting for Hamas was simply a way to vote “no” to Fatah.

Second, the United States. Perhaps Palestinians would have forgiven Fatah’s sleaziness if it had eased the burden of the Israeli occupation. Palestinians thought that the death of Yasir Arafat and the election of Mahmoud Abbas a year ago would lead the United States to push Israel to ease up on them. It didn’t happen. The Bush administration said the right things but, with the notable and significant exceptions of successfully getting the route of the separation barrier altered to ease Palestinian movement and the Gaza border crossings agreement, the U.S. pretty much let Prime Minister Sharon do whatever he wanted. Rightly supporting Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal, we couldn’t even get Sharon to negotiate its terms with Abbas. He insisted that Israel would do it without consulting the Palestinians. Accordingly, Abbas and Fatah got no credit for Gaza withdrawal while Hamas was credited for producing the unilateral pullout by force of its arms.

Third, the Israelis. They are the last people who should be surprised by the Hamas victory. In fact, in the 1980s Hamas—and previous incarnations of Islamic resistance—were quietly supported by the Israelis as alternatives to the PLO. Prior to Yitzhak Rabin’s election in 1992 and the Oslo agreement, successive Likud governments preferred any alternative to Arafat and his organization, largely because they were not interested in negotiating with the Palestinians at all and the Islamicists—unlike the PLO—were not interested in negotiating with them either. But their biggest contribution to the Hamas victory was more recent. After boycotting Yasir Arafat since his election in 2001, it was assumed that the Sharon government would be more forthcoming with his moderate and democratically elected successor who, after all, ended the intifada. It wasn’t. Sharon refused to negotiate with Abbas and simply ignored Israel’s responsibilities under the roadmap (freezing settlement expansion, for one). Other than calling Abbas a “partner,” Sharon treated him no differently than Arafat, and the Americans didn’t press him. He ended violence and got almost nothing in return. To Palestinians, Abbas looked like a dupe.

At this point, it is impossible to know what is likely to happen. The Bush administration’s response and particularly the president’s own words have been relatively restrained. Congress, of course, will follow its usual course of Palestinian-bashing.

It is worth noting that it was Congress that did everything in its power to prevent Bush from taking actions that might have strengthened Abbas vis-à-vis Hamas. Last year, for instance, after the president offered the Palestinians $200 million in aid, Congress took $50 million out of that package and gave it to Israel to spend on new and improved checkpoints, the same checkpoints that Palestinians cite as being a major source of their misery. That was last year. This year, an election year, should see even more examples of the kind of pandering that only makes a bad situation worse.

But the Bush administration is not running for anything in 2006 and, as a second-term president, George W. Bush need not succumb to political pressure. That means he should give far more weight to what Hamas does and less to what it says. The Israelis, most notably Minister of Defense Shaul Mofaz, say that Hamas has behaved “responsibly” since the election. In fact, Hamas has clamped down on terrorism against Israelis since the Palestinian ceasefire was agreed to last January.

The administration’s primary goal should be to encourage Hamas, using all the means at its disposal, to maintain the ceasefire. Both because of our commitment to the security of Israel and our opposition to the use of terrorism, the United States cannot be expected to deal with a Hamas that either perpetrates or supports terror. At the same time, we do not want to come down so hard on Hamas—by cutting off all aid to the Palestinian people, for instance—that we push them into an even tighter embrace by Iran and Syria. People in Israel or the United States who argue for policies that would increase Palestinian suffering as a means of paying them back for voting Hamas will only make terrorism, and a renewed intifada, not only possible but likely.

If played right, it is possible—although just barely—that the Hamas takeover will not be deleterious to U.S. interests or to Israel’s either. At this point, the president’s “wait and see” approach is exactly right.

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M.J. Rosenberg is Director of the Israel Policy Forum’s Washington office and former editor of AIPAC’s Near East Report.

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