Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted that her staff was caught off guard by Hamas’ victory in the Jan. 25 Palestinian Legislative Council elections. “I’ve asked why nobody saw it coming,” she said. “It does say something about us not having a good enough pulse.”
While the State Department, President Bush and many other observers understand that Hamas’ popularity is due to frustration with Fatah’s corrupt governance of the Palestinian Authority, they have been missing several other crucial reasons why the P.A. has failed.
The Bush administration’s simple faith in elections has distracted it from comprehending the realities that Palestinians live with daily. What they have not understood is that an election is only a formal procedure. Substantive democracy requires the rule of law, protection of civil liberties and minority rights, physical security, a reasonable standard of living, sovereignty and political independence. The Palestinians have none of these. This is a source of Hamas’ popularity that President Bush fails to grasp.
The corrupt and ineffective rule of the Palestinian Authority by Fatah is certainly partly responsible for the lack of real democracy. But the most crucial problem is the continued Israeli occupation—concerted efforts to destroy the infrastructure of the P.A., the expansion of settlements, construction of a separation barrier effectively annexing large parts of the West Bank, military raids and many internal restrictions on movement. The Bush administration’s unwillingness to press Israel to ease the occupation and thus allow Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas real political successes meant that Abbas could not present a credible alternative to Hamas.
Israel says that it will not conduct political talks with a Palestinian Authority led by Hamas. But since 2001, it has also refused to negotiate substantive political issues related to the removal of Israeli settlements, establishment of a Palestinian state and its borders with Yasser Arafat or Abbas. Instead, it undertook a unilateral redeployment from the Gaza Strip that, rather than creating a zone of Palestinian autonomy, has turned the area into a lawless open-air prison. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon sustained the abandonment of the January 2001 Taba talks, where the parties were, as Yossi Beilin and Yasser Abed Rabbo, the lead negotiators for each side, wrote in the New York Times on Aug. 1, 2001, “agonizingly close” to a comprehensive agreement.
He ignored a Saudi peace plan floated by Crown Prince Abdullah in March 2002 that proposed recognition of Israel by all the Arab states in exchange for withdrawal to the Green Line border around the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Before his debilitating stroke, Sharon was planning further unilateral measures, according to the Israeli daily Ma’ariv, including the annexation of “greater Jerusalem” and areas to the west of the separation barrier in the West Bank.
Hamas claims it forced Israel out of the Gaza Strip through armed struggle. Most Palestinians and a large minority of Israelis believe this. Because Israel refused to negotiate or coordinate its redeployment from Gaza with the P.A., Fatah and Abbas could not present Israel’s departure as a result of their policies, an outcome that was foreseeable.
Neither the Bush administration nor Israel appears to recognize its own responsibility for strengthening Hamas and weakening secular and more moderate Palestinian political forces. Will Hamas recognize Israel and abandon armed struggle when it assumes political responsibility for the Palestinian people? If this happens at all, it is unlikely to come as a single dramatic declaration. A long transition comparable to the torturous negotiations among the Irish Republic Army, the British government and the other Irish political forces would probably be required.
Israel and the Bush administration have two options—to stonewall the new P.A. government on the grounds that Hamas is a terrorist organization, or to engage cautiously and encourage the adoption of pragmatic policies by offering real progress toward a viable and independent Palestinian state in exchange.
The first option will almost surely lead to more death and destruction for both Palestinians and Israelis. The second option is risky. But serious negotiation is the only chance for progress toward a peaceful resolution of the conflict, and long overdue.