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On the Record

Palestinian Elections

CAMPBELL BROWN, co-host: Tensions are high across the Middle East following Hamas’ victory this week in Palestinian elections. As we’ve reported, there was more violence overnight. What does all this mean for the US and its allies? Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at Maryland University as well as a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.

And, Mr. Telhami, good morning to you.

Mr. SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): Good morning to you.

BROWN: Let me begin with Hamas’ victory in general and the reaction to it. Its showing caught a lot of people off guard, took the US administration by surprise, the international community. You have this organization that is—in its charter claims it is committed to the destruction of Israel. It has taken responsibility for numerous terrorist attacks. And yet it wins a majority of seats. How does this happen?

Mr. TELHAMI: Well, it—it’s certainly a revolution. It’s nothing short of a revolution. I think everybody knew that Hamas was going to do well. I think that’s not a surprise, and they knew it was going to be a factor in ways it hasn’t been in the past. But I think no one really expected this sweeping victory. And I think, essentially, the Palestinian people are really fed up with the status quo, fed up with promises, fed up with the corrupt ruling elite. This is an end of an era for Fatah and the PLO that have dominated Palestinian politics for four centuries. And now what you have is—in essence you have a situation where there is—there wasn’t a distinction between ruling party and government. So essentially all the structures have to be changed. It—there’s a huge challenge for Hamas. But it happened not so much because people agreed with Hamas on the issue of Israel. In fact, polls show most Palestinians want a negotiated settlement. It happened because people didn’t believe it was coming, they didn’t believe that the current government was going to deliver it, and they wanted change. And that’s the difficulty here in this situation.

BROWN: But what does this mean for the peace process? How can Israel possibly negotiate with the Palestinians if Hamas is running the show?

Mr. TELHAMI: Exactly. And I think that’s the—that’s the challenge for Israel, for the US, but it’s a challenge for—for Hamas. I don’t think they expected to be in this position. They expected to be a factor, maybe focus on social issues. Now they’re thrust into a foreign policy arena they’re not prepared for, and, frankly, they cannot be effective without modifying their position. The question is, will they? I think in the short term they will assume that they’re—these are parliamentary elections, they might be able to form a government. But there’s an executive branch. President Mahmoud Abbas remains an elected president. He has executive powers. He’s the one who negotiates. He is accepting of those negotiations. Now, the Hamas may try to finesse this by focusing on domestic issues and allowing him to negotiate…

BROWN: Right.

Mr. TELHAMI: …and—and keep the veto power. But they’re going to be forced to react to international pressure, no doubt.

BROWN: Let me ask you what this means for the US in terms of the war on terror, because a key part of that strategy is to foster democracy in the Arab world. So what happens now if you’re fostering democracy in the Arab world and democracy yields a terrorist organization in lead position of government?

Mr. TELHAMI: Well, I think this is a really big question. I mean, in the end Hamas, if it modifies its position, the US will have actually prevailed because, in the end, if they, in fact, control the violence—think they’re in a better position—they modify their position as rulers, democracy will have won. Verdict is still out. But on the broader problem for the United States is not just so much the terrorism. I think the Islamist issue. There’s fear in the United States of all Islamic groups, including ones that are relatively peaceful, like the Muslim Brotherhood—Brotherhood in Egypt. But the reality of it is they’re the alternative to government there. If there is democracy tomorrow in most Arab countries, Islamist groups will win…

BROWN: Right.

Mr. TELHAMI: …and the United States is really not prepared for it. There is no strategy to deal with that.

BROWN: All right. Well, Shibley Telhami, always appreciate your insight. Thanks so much for joining us this morning.

Mr. TELHAMI: My pleasure.

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