The ocean of ink spilled after the remarkable success of Hamas in January’s Palestinian Legislative Council elections has drowned a few salient facts.
The election that Hamas won was the most democratic election in the Arab world in decades, and one of very few that has effected an actual change of government. But the vote for the Islamist party was not a vote for every clause in its charter, since polls consistently show Palestinians desirous of a negotiated peace with Israel. For other reasons, as well, much Western reaction to the Hamas victory has been overwrought.
First, the elections’ outcome cannot be described as a setback for the “peace process,” since there has been no such thing since January 2001. Instead of negotiating, Israel has undertaken a series of unilateral measures that aim to manage the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not to resolve it. After the Gaza “disengagement,” settlements in the West Bank have continued to grow, as has the wall cutting through the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The broad center of Israeli opinion supports these measures not because they will bring peace with the Palestinians, but because they are steadily “separating” Israel from the Palestinians.
The program of unilateral separation was on track before Hamas won at the polls. On January 24, at the important annual Herzliya conference, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert promised to “create a clear boundary as soon as possible, one which will reflect the demographic reality on the ground. Israel will maintain control over the security zones, the Jewish settlement blocs and those places which have supreme national importance to the Jewish people, first and foremost a united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty.” Israel may exploit the Hamas victory to accelerate implementation of this plan and to market it abroad, but the strategic picture is fundamentally unchanged.
Second, the Palestinian Authority (PA), whether run by secular nationalists or Islamists, is not a sovereign state. It is a quasi-state under international tutelage and Israeli military occupation. Its weakness was again exposed when Israel imposed “sanctions” upon the swearing-in of Hamas deputies in the new legislature. Under the terms of the 1994 Oslo agreement and the subsequent Paris Protocol, Israel collects duties on imports into the Palestinian territories on the PA’s behalf — because Israel insists on controlling the PA’s borders. Withholding payment of these revenues, as Israel began doing on February 19, is a violation of Israel’s treaty obligations. The fact that Israel does this heedlessly, along with the renewed spate of assassinations in the West Bank and Gaza, underscores once more where the balance of power lies. If, as Likud Party leader Binyamin Netanyahu complained, “Olmert does not see that Israel is under a strategic threat from Hamas,” then Olmert is correct.
Finally, it is silly to blame the Bush administration’s “democracy promotion” doctrine for the rise of Hamas, beyond noting that Washington showed no enthusiasm for the inclination of some in the PA and Fatah to delay the elections. Whatever responsibility the Bush administration bears for the Hamas victory lies in its unstinting support for Israel’s unilateral exercises of political and military power. Not only has the US failed to impel Israel to resume talks with the PA over the terms of a two-state solution, but it has also endorsed several Israeli initiatives that are rendering such a resolution improbable. In April 2004, President George W. Bush told the now incapacitated Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that he would back Israeli annexation of West Bank settlement blocs and that the right of return for Palestinian refugees is a moot question. Three months later, the administration denounced the International Court of Justice ruling against the wall, and for five years, it has repeatedly invoked the “right to self-defense” to excuse Israel’s extrajudicial executions.
Initial indications are that Hamas wants to form a broad-based government rather than a narrowly partisan one, though the recalcitrance of other political forces may foil this aim. In any event, Palestinians will ultimately judge the Hamas-led government by its success or failure in furthering the goal of ending Israeli occupation and in lessening the occupation’s burdens in the meantime. This fact Hamas clearly understands.