Thursday, January 26, 2006

Interpreting the Hamas victory-- and where from here

There are election upsets and election upsets. Most often, people know when one is coming. Whether in the case of Bill Clinton's upset of George Bush Sr. in 1992, or the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, or the recent Canadian election booting the Liberal party after 13 years of Parliamentary control and a kickback scandal, people pretty much know these results are coming because of polling that takes place ahead of the election. And this is true internationally as well. For example, in the British elections, the polls predicted that Tony Blair would get his wings clipped but survive. That happened. In the German election, the polls predicted that Andrea Merkel would replace Gerhard Schroeder, and she did. Polls showed ahead of the recall election that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez faced two years ago that he would win by a huge margin, and he did. In the recent Iraqi elections, polls predicted that the main Shiite party would win but not by enough to form a government all by themselves. Although the Shiites did a little better than expected (finishing ten votes short of an outright majority when the polls had predicted about twice that far), the polls were essentially correct. Polls also picked the winners of the recent elections in Chile and Bolivia.

So, polling showing on the eve of the Palestinian election that Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party would retain power despite a stiff challenge at the ballot box from Hamas, seemed to be the case early on, when returns showed Fatah with a narrow lead. So I went to bed believing that they had won the election. Wrong. Hamas, a terrorist group which has specialized in sending suicide bombers into Israel and which calls for the complete eradication of Israel, won a shocking victory. This one was truly under the radar. It is clear that the people who polled Palestinian voters need to work on their science. And it is clear that the vote was less for Hamas, than it was against a government led by Fatah which has been corrupt, ineffective and unable to deliver peace. And the fact is that Hamas has used the money they have collected for 1) arms, and 2) to deliver services for poor Palestinians (who turned out in droves to elect them). What they have not done with it is enrich themselves (Arafat died with a fortune in banks around the world-- much in contrast to the grinding poverty that his people faced), so at least as far as getting rid of the corruption, they seemed well poised to do that.

The victory, which surprised even Hamas leaders, presents both a dilemma and an opportunity for peace.

The dilemma is obvious. Israel cannot sit down at the peace table with people whose only peace objective is to destroy them. And in the short term, it seems likely that the Israeli electorate is most likely to elect a candidate to lead that country who is a hawk as well (this outcome bodes well for Netanyahu in particular), fearing that Hamas in actual control of the Palestinian Authority will be a deadly threat. And they are right, if Hamas chooses to use its control to conduct more sophisticated and larger scale attacks against Israel.

There is also an opportunity here. One that is unseen right now, but could be exactly what is needed. The opportunity will present itself if Hamas, recognizing that they now have to govern, matures to the point that they see themselves as representing the nascent Palestinian state, as opposed to greater Palestine (i.e. getting rid of Israel). And they did leave the door open to that in their first public statements, reiterating their position on getting rid of Israel, but also reiterating their pre-election 'truce' opposing attacks on Israel, and stating that they are still abiding by it. They will inevitably have to deal with Israeli government officials in matters ranging from border crossings to water usage, and as such will inevitably be forced to acknowlege the existence of Israel. Of course, Israel has refused to negotiate with Hamas representatives as well, so I suspect these contacts will be done behind closed doors, and likely through intermediaries such as Egypt or Jordan, arab countries which have contacts now with Israel.

And whatever Hamas' official position is, they are likely smart enough to figure out that if they took the forces available to the Palestinian Authority into a full out war with the Israeli military, the result would be the destruction of the Authority and would set back any hopes for a Palestinian state by at least a generation.

But the real reason to be optimistic in the long run (though pessimistic right now) is based on an observation of the qualitative difference between Israel and the Fatah government of Arafat and Abbas: Israel could, and did, keep their promises even in the face of intense domestic opposition (the recent forced evacuation of the Gaza settlements being a case in point.) And Israel has had leaders like Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, who despite sometimes being considered as terrorists by their opponents, could at the same time command the respect and support of their people and be able to back up any offer they made at the peace table both with strength and with their good word. In contrast, after Arafat walked away from the Barak deal and went along with those who wanted to start the 'intifada,' I remember a very profound summary of Arafat's actual authority over the Palestinians from a Palestinian man I remember discussing it with once on the CNN message boards. He said something to the effect that, 'Arafat has the authority to say, 'yes' to those who wanted to riot. In other words, he was the acknowledged leader mainly because the west recognized him as such, but in fact, his real authority extended only as far as he went along with the people who wanted to attack. Abbas didn't even have as much pull as Arafat, and so his party was dumped unceremoniously as soon as the Palestinian people had a chance to do so (Abbas remains technically the President of the Palestinian Authority, but he presides over a parliament that is dominated by Hamas). In fact, this election only validates what many have known for a long time: that Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, has been the real power among the Palestinians for the past few years. And here is the reason for long term optimism even if it will start off on a rocky road: Unlike Fatah, Hamas can actually make their current truce or any other moves towards peace they make stick, because they have both the moral authority and reputation for ruthlessness among Palestinians (and no, that is not an oxymoron in that part of the world) to make it stick. Hamas, if they can be induced to accept reality and the fact that Israel will remain on the map, has one card that Fatah (under both Arafat and Abbas) never had. They can tell even the biggest hotheads among the Palestinians, either 'yes' OR 'no' when it comes to carrying out attacks. And if someone violated their directive, well let's say I wouldn't want to be that someone (including anyone who cooperated with them.) So while Hamas is not now a suitable negotiating partner, and won't be as long as they insist on the destruction of Israel, ultimately they may hold the most necessary card that Israel has proven they have, but was missing in Arafat's hand-- the ability to make any agreement reached hold, on their side.


Anonymous said...

I do worry about the impacts of a Netanyahu/Likud victory in Israel. Sharon took most of the people out of that party, leaving Likud with a core of hard line militants that may very well win the upcoming elections (I'm not as certain as you that they will win, though).

Netanyahu did not impress me when he was PM before, either for his political astuteness or for the positions he supported, and has bungled politically since being replaced as PM as well (e.g. by resigning his seat in the Knesset he was unable legally to challenge Sharon for the leadership when that position opened up again). A Netanyahu win, with his repeated calls for putting the Israeli boot back on the necks of the Palestinians, in combination with the ascension of Hamas in Palestine, would be a *very* dangerous mix.

dorsano said...

The victory, which surprised even Hamas leaders, presents both a dilemma and an opportunity for peace.

You're right about that, Eli - Hamas now has something lose - in time, that may moderate them.

I think Dean was dissed during the Democratic primary for suggesting that we try and bring Hamas into the peace process

Well - they are in now - this is time to quote Rumsfeld I think

Democracy isn't pretty

Eli Blake said...


I hope that you are wrong about what happens, but you are right that it is dangerous. I've never thought much of Netanyahu either, but then let's not forget that Begin and Sharon were also creatures of the extreme right at one time in their lives, in fact people who could easily be called terrorists who were responsible for the deaths of many Palestinians.

However, I think that even with Netanyahu, there are limits on what he will be able to do anymore. The Israelis are now out of Gaza, and if he were to re-enter without an actual provocation, I suspect that even the U.S. would be forced to place sanctions on him. And the difficulties of actually occupying all of these territories would be such a strain on the Israeli military (as they were during the original early 1990's era intifada) would likely sooner or later force some sort of negotiated settlement.

Eli Blake said...


You are right.

The true test of our support for Democracy is whether we will support it when people we don't like get elected (the biggest test so far has been Hugo Chavez, but this will dwarf him as a test), and the fact is that as this election has proven, Hamas is now speaking for the Palestinian people. Sometimes to achieve peace, you also have to deal with people you may not agree with, maybe even with people you hate and fear. Even Nixon saw that when he went to China.

Anonymous said...

The people in this area of the world have been hating and killing each other for thousands of years. Until they evolve and stop teaching hate to each new generation there will never be peace there, no matter who tries to intercede. It's an endless grudge match. JMO

Anonymous said...

Eli, I hope you are right about the prospect for Hamas growing up. Yesterday I was filled with dread. After reading your post today, I see a glimmer of hope.

While we can respect the Democratic process. We do not have to respect or deal with terrorists. If Hamas matures then the world will be better for it.

Anonymous said...

I sure hope you are right about the possibilities here.

I won't even comment on Bush's disingenuous desire to see 'democratically elected leaders'.He himself wasn't democratically elected.
He's hardly making the effort to fool us nowadays.

Beth said...


You are my hero!

Well said!

jurassicpork said...

If this doesn't test out alliance with Israel, nothing will. Lately, Bush has been on friendlier terms (give or take a bombing raid or two) with the Pakistanis than the Israelis. It'll be amusing to see how well Bush straddles the fence on this one.

And what the hell did President Wetbrain mean when he said the Hamas victory was "a wake-up call"?

Post American said...

Is Israel going to renounce violence? Is the USA going to renounce violence? Is Israel going to give up its secret nookular program or WMDS? Is the USA?
Terrorism is just a tactic of adapting to our high tech killing machine. What the hell is going on?
I am with the non violent resistance in all of its forms, but the entire US Government, Republicans AND Democrats, and their Corporate State Controlled Media need to be put on trial for war crimes, and "brought to justice"! Ain't no shame being Pro American Anti War Pro Life and Pro Choice Pro Jewish Anti Zionist For a Free Palestine, 67 Borders, No Occupation, No Settlements, No Walls, no more Zionist Horseshit!

dorsano said...

When President Reagan first entered into negotians with the old Soviet Union, then congressman Dick Cheney said, in the Congressional record, that it would lead to fall the of free world - so much for the statemenship of President, er - I mean - Vice President, Dick Cheney

Israel once proclaimed to the world that they would never negotiate with the PLO - yet they did.

I think the best way to end the terrorism of Hamas is to convince them that's it's in their best interest to stop killing people

Is that negotiation? Or is it common sense - the whole "We will not negotiate with terrorists" - is posturing - no substance - no leadership

hollow rhetoric.

Anonymous said...

Hey, Crusader:

1. Israel's nuclear program is not secret. Everyone knows about it, they even know where, at Dimona, all those nukes are stored. The only thing that is not known is how many, but even at that, the best guess is 200-300 nukes.

2. It is true, the old adage that 'one man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter,' but I have no respect for people who get 12 year old boys to blow themselves up in crowded marketplaces. If these guys blew themselves up attacking a military target, that would at least be respectable and worthy of some level of admiration, but to get somebody else, especially a child, to blow themselves up for you in a crowd of women and children, I think that is kind of cowardly.

Groups like Hamas don't respect the 67 borders (nor did the P.L.O. when it was founded, in 1964) so why is it always Israel's fault?

dorsano said...

so why is it always Israel's fault?

No one is saying it is. Israel has no better friend than this country.

And that will never change.

The U.S. will "not negotiate with terrorists" - meaning we will not aquise to intimidation of any sort

But if I were president, I'd instruct the Secretary of State to engage anyone - including Hamas - and make the case that it is in the best interest of Hamas to stop killing people

Only someone lacking convidence in their message - and the values of this nation - whould shy away from that it seems to me.