Democracy Means Difficult Choices

February 19, 2006

Difficult choices abound following Hamas’s election victory. European governments, well aware that Palestinian society is but a few weeks away from utter poverty and near-starvation, feel pressured to find some arrangement whereby they can continue to provide financial and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian Authority. Egypt and Jordan, with borders along the West Bank and Gaza, seek to avoid a total social collapse in the territories. And moderate Palestinians both in the territories and in the diaspora seek to keep the hope of two states for two peoples, and the hope of a liberal, democratic and pluralistic Palestine, alive in the hearts of increasingly desperate Palestinian citizens.

For all these reasons, pressure is growing on Fatah and Hamas to join forces in a “national unity government.” Such a coalition would likely place Hamas into the social ministries it most wants to extend its influence on the population’s welfare and affections, while leaving foreign relations largely in the hands of Fatah, an acceptable interlocutor for the international community and perhaps for Israel, as well. Supporters of a coalition hope that Fatah’s presence in the government would tame Hamas’s ideological extremism and maintain national unity in what is sure to be a challenging period ahead.

But a “national unity government” would subvert Palestinian democracy and would not ultimately benefit the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Palestinian public rejected the notion of continued Fatah rule when they voted Hamas candidates into parliament in such great numbers; public dissatisfaction with Fatah’s corrupt, self-serving governance, its inability to produce desired concessions from Israel, and its obsession with partisan infighting was widespread and well-known. It is not clear that the Palestinians who voted for Hamas support a violent strategy against the occupation—indeed, clear majorities in polls reject renewed violence and desire peace negotiations. Still, Hamas’s hard-line stance toward Israel did not dissuade these voters from casting their ballots for a distinct change in leadership.

Hamas would probably enjoy having Fatah alongside it in government—the defeated party would be a very convenient whipping boy should things go wrong. But Hamas’s must not be given the option of avoiding the responsibility of a democratic victor to carry out “the people’s business.” Its ideas and capabilities must be put to the test, and then the public can evaluate its performance. Only in this way can Palestinian democracy evolve and produce a truly legitimate, empowered government that can win international acceptance for Palestinian statehood and negotiate on equal terms with Israel.

Another option now under consideration is strengthening the powers of the Palestinian Authority president so that Mahmoud Abbas, with his own electoral mandate of one year ago, can balance Hamas in government. The PA president can already appoint and dismiss the prime minister, can veto legislation, and is commander in chief of the security forces, though his control is supposed to be exercised through the Interior Minister. Could Abbas prevent, say, Hamas from adding its five thousand militia members to the security services’ payroll? Could he direct international assistance to the Authority through his office rather than through the ministers responsible for health, education, and welfare?

With international backing, he probably could—but only at the cost of aggrandizing the executive branch and undermining the checks and balances inherent in democratic government. The PA presidency was reduced in scope at the behest of the international community, who hoped democracy would be a means to sidestep Arafat’s recalcitrance and abuses of authority. Reversing course now would only confirm to Palestinians that international actors care more about the personalities of Palestinian officeholders than they do about Palestinian democracy. That would be a sad breach of trust, with the Palestinian public and also with other aspiring Arab democrats.

Hamas, of course, also faces difficult choices if it takes its new leadership role to heart: can it embrace a sufficiently pragmatic agenda to attract non-movement experts that it will need to fill out an entire cabinet of ministers? Is it willing to yield on some of its ideological principles in order to achieve international recognition and maintain the flow of funds into the Palestinian Authority’s coffers? If not, is it willing to take funding from Iran or other such sources, even at the cost of subordinating Palestinians’ national struggle to someone else’s radical agenda? While it is possible that the act of governing itself will force Hamas to soften its roughest edges, any such process is likely to be slow. It is hard to contemplate how a movement that has not secured a strong vote of confidence from the public can be persuaded to abandon key principles in a matter of weeks for the sake of pragmatism.

But such painful choices are exactly what democratic governance is meant to require from ruling parties. Only dictatorships can protect ideological purity while remaining in office—and only at a bloody price. Moreover, while their vote total includes some “protest” votes, Hamas still represents a real segment of Palestinian opinion on a variety of subjects: culture and religion, public morality, and how to deal with Israel. Having been voted in by the citizenry, Hamas must now take on the responsibilities of leadership. One can hope that their choices will reflect those new responsibilities, and will not deepen Palestinians’ misery. A Fatah-Hamas coalition government would only delay the necessary day of reckoning.