After 9/11, U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East made a U-turn on democracy. Recognizing that stability—the policy goal until then—was not guaranteeing security, the Bush administration committed to promoting democracy in the Middle East, working under the assumption that democracy is an antidote to terrorism. It may be right.
What can be a more spectacular advertisement for the idea that democracy makes politicians out of terrorists than the electoral victory of Hamas in last week's Palestinian election?
Since its formation in 1987, Hamas has become the deadliest obstacle to U.S. and Israeli goals in the region. In the Palestinian territories, Hamas is a quasi-state providing several welfare services, such as running schools and clinics and even providing local governance and security functions. It has unleashed hundreds of terror attacks against Israel, including suicide bombers causing heavy civilian casualties. It has, however, maintained a cease-fire since February 2005.
Hamas' electoral victory, though surprising, is understandable. First, it has been the only Palestinian response to Israeli military and settlement building operations for over a decade. Second, it has provided social services that neither the Palestinian Authority—the recipient of U.S. and EU aid and Palestinian taxes—nor Israel the occupier provides. Finally, the unmitigated corruption of the Palestinian Authority, and the inability of Mahmoud Abbas—the choice of the Bush administration to deliver anything, governance or freedom—made Hamas a more attractive choice for the Palestinians.
Hamas' victory is not only a rejection of the corruption in the Palestinian Authority, but also a reminder that the road map to peace has not alleviated the daily misery and humiliation that Palestinians experience. The promise of peace that the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza had generated has been lost, as unemployment reached nearly 50 percent, and the territory hovered on the border of chaos with the PA failing to provide law and order, and also failing to launch any major developmental initiatives.
Hamas' victory is not just a negative vote against the PA; just as Israelis turned to Ariel Sharon after the failure of the peace process in 2001, the Palestinians, too, have now turned toward Hamas after the failure of the road map to peace in search of another alternative. The road map has been such a failure that Israel under Sharon had already abandoned it, to pursue a unilateral agenda of separation by withdrawing from Gaza and building a wall between the two populations in the West Bank.
Both Washington and Tel Aviv have expressed dismay and concern at this turn of events, and are lamenting the loss of a peace partner. While Condoleezza Rice has expressed U.S. willingness to continue working with Mahmoud Abbas on all matters including the peace process, Israel has repeated its unwillingness to work with Hamas. Israel and the U.S. maintain that as long as Hamas' goal remains the destruction of Israel, it cannot be a partner in a peace process it explicitly rejects.
While I recognize the potentially explosive situation with Hamas, I humbly submit that Hamas' victory may very well prove to be beneficial to all concerned parties. It is common wisdom that a peace deal acceptable to Likud is acceptable to all in the U.S. and Israel. Similarly, a peace deal acceptable to Hamas will be acceptable to all in the Arab and Muslim world. Will an organization committed to Israel's destruction negotiate? Hamas has always negotiated with the EU, the U.S. [indirectly] and with other Arab interlocutors. The current cease-fire in place since last February is a negotiated outcome. While the U.S., Israel and Hamas may wish to avoid negotiating openly, given their past rhetoric, it is always possible to negotiate through proxies. EU and Egypt can play the role of proxies. Now, ironically, Israel could have a real partner for peace, since Hamas can deliver what the PA could never promise: an end to the nightmare of suicide bombers.
The spoiler is now in the saddle, and will have to change its outlook, its perspective and its politics if it wishes to remain in the saddle. Israel and the U.S. must handle the situation prudentially, not petulantly, and give Hamas the time and space to find a face-saving means to alter its agenda and a route to the negotiating table.
Recent statements by President Bush and Congressional leaders threatening to cut off U.S. aid to the Palestinian government are counterproductive. It looks as if the U.S. is punishing the Palestinians for taking calls for democracy seriously, and will merely be one more thing that the U.S. is doing to make Muslim life miserable. Moreover, Iran will step in and fill the gap and thereby increase its influence and reduce U.S. influence on the new Palestinian government.
Hamas has promised to provide clean and efficient governance, and they cannot do so without day-to-day cooperation with Israel. So far it has relied on funding from Islamist sympathizers in the Arab World to support its limited activities. But to govern the territories it will need the financial aid from the EU [$600 million] and U.S. [$70 million to $150 million], and the taxes that Israel collects [$50 million]. It cannot be effective without the support and cooperation of all three players, and hence will have to find a way to assuage Israeli fears and earn its cooperation.
In a sense, Hamas' desire to become a political player, and its electoral victory, is a victory for Israel. For the first time, it now has direct leverage over Hamas. It can make Hamas look inefficient and incompetent, and Palestinians who have high expectations that their lives will improve may soon turn against Hamas if its promises turn out to be as empty as those made by PA.
Hamas' victory also gives great credibility to Washington's claim that it is serious about democracy in the Middle East. It belies the Jihadist claim that the U.S. is anti-Islam. After all, President Bush has not only enshrined Islam in the constitutions of two nations—Iraq and Afghanistan—he has facilitated the pathway to power for Islamists first in Egypt and now in Palestine.
Nothing serious can happen anyway until after the Israeli election in March. It is a good opportunity for all parties to chill out until then, and ponder the new realities. It will help if the decibel level of the rhetoric is kept low. Hamas must maintain the cease-fire and focus on governance. Israel must recognize that peace between Arabs and Jews cannot be piecemeal. It will have to be peace between all Jews [liberal and conservative] and all Arabs [secular and Islamist] in the area.
We now have another window of opportunity to make a breakthrough in this conflict. Let's not squander this one.