The most surprising thing about Hamas’ complete victory in the Palestinian elections was how much it surprised everyone. Anyone who reads beyond the headlines should have seen it coming.
For several decades---both in exile and in their nascent state---Palestinians have suffered abysmal leadership. Their leaders didn’t decisively choose either peace or war, but vacillated and temporized. While mouthing comforting words to the West in English and making half-hearted attempts to stem terrorism, at home in Arabic they tolerated the intifadas or actively encouraged them. As a result, a whole generation of Palestinian youth wasted their lives in grinding, degrading, escalating and largely pointless violence.
And what did the families of these “martyrs” get for their sacrifice? Certainly nothing visible from abroad. Despite the current shaky truce, no end to the violence appears in sight. Unemployment in Gaza is 65%. Until the corridor opened to Egypt very recently, ordinary Palestinians in Gaza had virtually no free contact with the outside world (other than electronically) and little trade. Most Palestinians wallowed in poverty while Israeli tanks destroyed homes and villages. Meanwhile, their leaders lived in expensive villas, sent their families to live and study abroad, and enjoyed all the perks of international conferences and political attention. Has there ever been a set of leaders who got more and gave less?
Hamas, on the other hand, was more than a terrorist organization. As is now well known even in the West, it had developed a highly effective system for delivering social services to Palestinians who have little or nothing. For this it used money donated by Islamic charities worldwide. Unlike Fatah’s leaders, however, Hamas didn’t pocket the money given them. It was thus Hamas, which, day after day, in small but steady ways, helped make people’s lives better.
Thus the real surprise in the elections was not Hamas’ win, but how free and fair the elections were. As it turned out, they were models of rectitude for any developing country, let alone one in the volatile Middle East. In their aftermath nascent Palestine can add its name to Iraq’s as an Arabic-speaking regime that appears to be making democracy work.
Now the West must pick up the pieces from nearly a century of misguided policy and face reality. For decades before and during the Cold War, the West treated peoples of the Middle East as inconsequential ciphers. It dealt with them only through despots of varying degrees of ineptitude, corruption and brutality. Saddam and the Shah of Iran were only the worst. In a strange sense, Arafat himself was one of these despots. The West supported him, for lack of anyone better, as a “partner in peace” until his uselessness for that purpose became too painfully obvious.
The reality is that peace will never prevail in the Middle East until the legitimate aspirations of its people---including aspirations for religious freedom---are met. Too many despots have used the people’s yearning as a political football. Despots on the right, in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, use it to scare their middle class and the West into supporting repressive anti-democratic measures that only keep the lid on the popular cauldron. Despots on the left, in Syria and Iran, use it to foment violence and distract popular attention from their own despotism, corruption, and ineptitude. Helping sit on the lid of a cauldron that has been boiling more and more ferociously for several decades is not a viable long-term foreign policy.
Here President Bush deserves credit for the vision that he and Secretary Rice have created. Both have steadfastly insisted on facing reality by supporting democracy throughout the Middle East and indeed the world.
The Bush/Rice vision is clearly the right one. Not only is it consistent with our basic national values; it also has some hope of being effective in the long term. Henry Kissinger and his ilk had their go at “realpolitik” and Metternichean power plays. They managed to give us the War in Vietnam, the current mess in the Middle East, the Mullahs in Iran, the Pinochet regime and its terrible legacy in Chile, and a Latin America likely to pursue counterproductive economic policies for the foreseeable future simply because it doesn’t like or trust us. Isn’t it time for a change in direction? Democrats and Bush critics should acknowledge the power of the Bush/Rice vision, stop criticizing it, and start thinking about how to make it work better.
If we abandon our fantasies of a quick solution and look at reality, several interesting prospects emerge from Hamas’ victory. First and foremost, Hamas is apparently the first democratically elected Arabic government in modern history that can use the term “public service” without irony. It knows how to make ordinary people’s lives better, day by day, and it’s had some success in doing so. That bodes well for the long term: youth who have a job, health care, and a future are less likely to blow themselves up.
Second, Hamas’ delivery of social services also gives us a possible point of legitimate leverage. After 9/11, when we began seriously to enforce restrictions on contributions to Islamic charities that flow to terrorist organizations, a large part of Hamas’ international funding dried up. We can now offer to restore that funding for legitimate charitable purposes if Hamas renounces terrorism and an intention to destroy Israel and proves its intentions by a period of calm.
Third, even Hamas’ deadly charter presents opportunity as well as danger. We have no way of knowing, even now, how serious the organization is about the worrisome term, let alone how serious it will be once it makes the transition from shrill opposition to accountable government. The charter does not literally call for the destruction of Israel, but for a Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the sea. Would a sovereign Palestinian corridor from the West Bank to Gaza satisfy this aspiration literally while allowing Israel to exist? Surely such a corridor is a practical necessity if an eventual Palestinian state is to be economically viable. Is the stronger interpretation that everyone fears a realistic aspiration for the Palestinians, or just a metaphorical rallying cry that a majority party no longer needs to maintain? Only time, patience, and constant, well-intentioned diplomatic pressure will tell.
Fourth, like Iraq, the nascent Palestinian state is full of secular folk with Western educations. Unlike Iraq, it also has powerful and popular female leaders, like Hanan Ashrawi, who do not wear the veil. Thus Palestine offers the promise of a democratic state that, if not wholly secular, will be only mildly Islamist. A key focus of diplomatic effort in the near term should be to insure that peace-minded, Western-educated Fatah members do not go into exile, but remain as minority members of government, trusted advisors, or a loyal opposition. At the same time, our diplomacy should support the Hamas government in its effort to weed out those who are inept or corrupt.
Fifth, the international community, including both the West and the Arab league, should make every effort to educate the new Hamas leaders about the realities of nuclear weapons. Every member of the new parliament and every official of the new Hamas government should be sent, expenses paid, to the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. There are good reasons why, despite provocation and temptation, no one has used a nuclear weapon in anger since 1945. The new Hamas leaders should each be personally taught that lesson in a way they will never forget.
Of course all this requires dealing with the new Hamas government, despite our government’s pledge never to deal with terrorists. That pledge is an important symbol, but it should be maintained only as long as it provides significant practical leverage over the new government. In the end, we may have no choice but to deal with the new government, if only to influence its development in a positive direction. There may come a day when we will have to release our pledge or finesse it, in order to achieve important practical goals. In that respect as in others, pragmatism and realism, not stubbornness or ideology, should be our guide.
One final note: we have a friend and ally with invaluable experience in this field. Over the last several decades, England has sought to convert Shinn Fein from a terrorist organization into a viable and peaceful democratic party and to disarm the Irish Republican Army. That process appears to be having some success. This experience is directly applicable to what we hope will eventually happen with Hamas. Publicly relying on English advice in this regard will both increase our chances of success and increase Britain’s now-scant public support for our own foreign policy. It may even help make possible a British government with backbone after Tony Blair steps down.