The Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution hosted five experts to discuss Hamas’ victory in the January 25, 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council election. The discussion was moderated by Martin Indyk, Director of the Saban Center and Senior Fellow at Brookings.
Robin Wright, Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for The Washington Post and a Visiting Fellow at the Saban Center, discussed her trip to the West Bank and Gaza Strip during the lead-up to the election. She argued that the Palestinian election was the most democratic election in the Arab world to date. In contrast to the past, when the Palestinians had one party and one candidate, the January election included a diversity of candidates and parties, with a solid debate on economic issues and social issues, as well as discussion of the peace process. Additionally, in the past the main goal of the Palestinian political machine was to punish Israel, whereas today the Palestinians’ goal is to rule themselves.
Ziad Asali of the American Task Force on Palestine agreed that the election was entirely free and fair. He argued that the results do not necessarily reflect support for Hamas’ principles as much as they reflect protest against daily conditions in the Palestinian territories. Regarding Palestinian National Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Asali said that Abu Mazen will not resign and will not give up his mandate for peace. Nor will Abu Mazen give up control of the security apparatus because the rank-and-file, Asali argued, will not accept Hamas leadership. Asali also said that the West’s fear of civil war in the Palestinian territories is unfounded. Tamara Cofman Wittes, Saban Center Research Fellow, disagreed, noting that the cadres in the streets who carry their own weapons and have no intention of disarming could set off dangerous incidents.
Wright argued three key points: First, Hamas’ win translates into a commanding hold over the legislature. Therefore, it must deliver on jobs and healthcare to Palestinians. Second, Hamas must redefine its priorities towards a heavily social agenda. Although it controls the legislature, it does not have enough seats to override a presidential veto or change the Basic Law. Third, Hamas still has to work with the Abu Mazen on the peace process. A majority of Palestinians still support negotiations with Israel; therefore there is talk of a Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) revival to provide cover for Palestinian negotiations with Israel to occur under a different banner from that of a Hamas government.
One problem for Hamas, Asali argued, is credibility, especially in the financial sector. Asali made the point that Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayad gave the Palestinian financial system credibility in the eyes of the international community. Therefore, Hamas needs to maintain this credibility despite the challenge of running the large institutions that make up the PA. Hamas, Asali said, is used to running smaller organizations and may find it difficult to make the transition to running major government institutions. However, Asali stressed that the major area of disagreement between Hamas and Fatah is the peace process. Fatah is committed to a Palestinian state through negotiations whereas Hamas will not back-pedal significantly on its opposition to Israel and the peace process.
Amjad Atallah, Founder and President of Strategic Assessments Initiative, argued that there is likely a new equilibrium between Israelis and Palestinians. Just as Israelis vote for Labor when they want peace and for Likud when they want security, Palestinians look to Fatah when they want peace and Hamas when they want internal security. Fatah and Labor are committed to a two-state solution with an end to the conflict, whereas Hamas and Kadima are committed to a two-state solution without ending the conflict. Because Hamas and Kadima are the dominant parties, Atallah proposed an equilibrium similar to the Lebanon-Israel and Lebanon-Syria equilibriums. This would give Israel the advantage of controlling Palestinian areas and relieve the pressure off of permanent status negotiations. At the same time, Hamas is not looking to be let into the process of negotiations. Therefore, Israel could use the World Bank or another third party to negotiate with a Hamas government.
Regarding other Arab states, Indyk argued that Jordan and Egypt must confront an extremely difficult dilemma. On the one side, if Hamas succeeds, both countries will face problems with their own, local Islamist groups, specifically the Muslim Brotherhood. If Hamas fails, however, both countries will have a failed, Islamist state on their borders.
The Islamist Trend
Wright argued that the Islamist victory was not unique to the Palestinian territories, noting a trend present in Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq. The reason for this, she said, is threefold: there are few secular, liberal alternatives and a limited middle class in most Arab states; the election of Islamists is a trend that feeds upon itself; and the election of Islamist groups is a way to counter Western “imposed” ideals. Wittes said that Islamist victories are not inevitable, arguing that they are a result of the constraints on the political systems of the region. She noted that Islamist organizations have an advantage over other opposition groups in that religious institutions can act as a cover for political activities. Additionally, religious groups are able to build a social welfare network, which gives them credibility and translates into more support at the polls. In the Palestinian territories, Wittes argued, the public lacked any organized alternative to Fatah other than Hamas.
The Role of U.S. Policy
Wittes argued that the trend of electing Islamists will become more entrenched the longer the United States ignores it. Therefore, the U.S. government should engage with local actors to level the playing field for secular, liberal opposition groups. Wittes proposed that one strategy would entail addressing the issue of political party laws, something the United States has, thus far, failed to do. In the Palestinian territories, Wittes said the United States focused too much on Abu Mazen, rather than on trying to bolster secular opposition forces.
A participant asked if it is possible for United States to strengthen Abu Mazen. Atallah responded that may prove difficult because when Arafat was in power, the United States had pressured the Palestinian Authority to weaken the presidency. Therefore, Atallah proposed that it is possible to strengthen the president by expanding into grey areas of government authority. However, he warned that it is a dangerous strategy and precedent to de-democratize the Palestinian territories in response to democratic elections. The worst thing that can happen, he said, is for Hamas to struggle as the result of outside pressure. Instead, Hamas must face an internal struggle that tests its ability to govern effectively. Asali noted that the president retains some major responsibilities, including being the commander of the security forces and holding the power to choose and/or dismiss the prime minister. For this reason, Asali said, it is possible to strengthen Abu Mazen.