By George Friedman
Hamas has beaten Fatah in a key election and is now the dominant political party among the Palestinians. Many observers expressed surprise at the outcome, but the only thing that should have surprised anyone is that there was surprise. Hamas was facing a corrupt Fatah faction that had been driven into the ground by Yasser Arafat. Arafat’s successor, Mahmoud Abbas — who was widely celebrated by Western leaders — is in fact an obscure party functionary whose primary claim to leadership was his relationship with Arafat. While Arafat, the icon of Palestinian nationalism, could not be repudiated, repudiating Abbas was easy. Like the political wing of Fatah, he stood for nothing but the perpetuation of Fatah and the system of patronage that Arafat created. When it came to Abbas, Western media and leaders confused political exhaustion with virtue.
But it was not simply internal Palestinian politics that drove the Hamas victory. A wave of Islamist politics is sweeping the Muslim and Arab worlds, and the Palestinians are far from immune. The Islamist movement is doing far more than simply challenging the West: It is challenging the secular Arabists who were the heirs of the Nasserite tradition. The Islamists are confronting figures like Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. In many ways, Fatah was the embodiment of secular Arabism — the purest form of Nasserism. The Palestinians were among the most secular in the Arab world. Therefore, challenging and defeating Fatah represents a critical moment in the history of the Arab and Muslim world. It represents a new high-water mark for Islamists.
There was yet another process at work in the election. Arafat and the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) that he essentially created and dominated have existed in a complex relationship with Israel. In many ways, the PNA was a creation of Israel, living within boundaries that Israel defined. Whatever its level of involvement in the suicide bombing campaign against Israel, via Marwan Bargouthi and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Fatah still accepted the existence of the state of Israel. As a secular movement, it had no inherent moral objection to Israel’s existence — only a political objection, and political objections are inherently flexible.
Hamas has a moral objection to Israel’s existence, deriving from its understanding of Islamic texts. But it also had serious political objections to Fatah’s approach to Israel. From Hamas’ point of view, once Arafat had negotiated the existence of a quasi-state — the PNA — he became casual about negotiating the two critical things: first, the definition and rights of the Palestinian nation and, second, the transformation of the sort-of-state the PNA represented into an authentic state. An authentic state, by Hamas’ lights, meant a state with an army that it was free to deploy in a clearly defined territory.
Even if Hamas accepted the existence of Israel in some sense, its view was that the other side of the equation had not been fulfilled. Only the illusion — not the reality — of a Palestinian nation-state had been created. Hamas’ objection to Fatah was that it had accepted an illusion. Its objection to Abbas was that he was content to preside over an illusion. Corruption, the decline of Arab secularism and the inability of Fatah to articulate the interests of the Palestinians led it to defeat after decades of dominating and defining the Palestinian cause.
The issue today is what Hamas will do with its power. It must be understood that Hamas has not yet reached an unassailable position among the Palestinians: It defeated but did not blow out Fatah. Fatah is still there and can, particularly after a defeat like this, recover. Moreover, Hamas has never faced the problem of governing. Its unity is the unity of an opposition party, and its purity is the purity of a movement that has never had to award contracts for paving roads. There is a vast difference between opposing the rascals in power and taking power yourself. A party unused to ruling can very quickly become everything that it has opposed — a bureaucratized, patronage-driven entity more interested in holding onto power than in governing.
It is very possible that this will happen to Hamas. Certainly, this is what Israelis hope will happen. There is a strand of thinking among Israelis that argues that Hamas’ victory is the best hope there is for peace in the Middle East. The logic runs thus: Negotiating with the PNA under Arafat or Abbas was an exercise in futility. Arafat was duplicitous and Abbas powerless. No settlement reached by Fatah would ever have any meaning because Fatah could not deliver the rejectionists among the Palestinians. Hamas embodies the rejectionists. If Hamas were to enter into an agreement — even if it had opposition on its flanks, like Ariel Sharon did on the Israeli side — it ultimately would be able to deliver. And since peace is always made with enemies, better to deal with your worst enemy than with hapless moderates like Abbas.
Moreover, this line accepts that Hamas rejects the right of Israel to exist, that it has waged and can continue to wage suicide bomb attacks in Israel, and that it intends to govern by whipping up religious sentiment that must, by definition, be anti-Israeli. Nevertheless, this reasoning goes, the experience of government will affect Hamas in two ways. First, Hamas has come into power on a tidal wave of hope — but those hopes inevitably will be dashed. Hamas will, in a fairly short period of time, come under criticism for failing to deliver on those hopes. And second, as we have said, because Hamas is ill-prepared for the mechanics of governing, it will commit a series of amateurish errors, further dulling its bright credentials. Therefore, Hamas — a radical Islamist movement with a rejectionist policy — simultaneously will embody the most radical position among Palestinians while transforming into a normal political party. Not only will it be able to negotiate from a position of authority, but its appetite for confrontation will be dulled.
This is a view shared by many Western observers as well as Israelis, but there is, as one can see, a deep contradiction in the thinking. On the one side, Hamas is valued as a powerful revolutionary force — therefore, it can negotiate authoritatively. On the other, it will be moved to negotiate because the experience of governing will exhaust it sufficiently that it will move from radical to routine politics.
Before this question of what Hamas will do with its power can be answered, two immediate challenges are posed to both Israel and the West. Western countries funnel a great deal of aid to the Palestinians. One of the charges made against Arafat was that he, in effect, stole a great deal of that money. It was one of the charges leveled by his Palestinian critics, and one of the ways they wound up in Palestinian jails. At this point, depending on how the PNA reconstitutes itself, that money is likely to be passed to the control of Hamas functionaries. In effect, Hamas will be the recipient of Western aid.
Israel has a similar problem. The Israelis collect a good portion of Palestinian taxes and pass them back to the PNA — one of the reasons we call the PNA a pseudo-state. When the Israelis remit the funds to Palestinian accounts, those accounts will be controlled by Hamas. Hamas has announced its intention to take its own militias and designate them as a Palestinian army. The Israelis have accepted the concept of a Palestinian police and security force, but accepting the existence of a Palestinian army — let alone a Palestinian army that is in reality Hamas’ militias — and passing tax funds to them to spend as they wish would challenge the Israeli understanding of what a Palestinian state will mean. Sharon certainly didn’t envision that — and with his incapacitation, he has come to embody the gold standard of the Israeli position on the Palestinians.
But forget the Israelis for a moment. Consider the position of the Americans and Europeans. First, all sides have agreed that there should be a Palestinian state and have provided funding to the PNA. Second, all sides believe deeply in the concepts of national self-determination and free elections. Third, all sides oppose terrorism and the kind of suicide bombing campaigns carried out by Hamas. Even those governments most sympathetic to the Palestinians have opposed Hamas’ rejection of Israel’s right to exist and the suicide campaigns.
So then, we have an ongoing flow of money to a PNA that is seen as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and what appears to be a free and honest election of a group that is regarded by virtually everyone outside the Muslim world as among the least savory of terrorists. A decision must be made fairly quickly. Does the world honor the principle of national self-determination, even when the nation determines it wishes to be governed by people who are regarded as morally reprehensible?
Those who argue for national self-determination and free elections always seem to think that the outcome will be the election of nice folks who’d be at home in Wisconsin. This is as true of the Bush administration as of Amnesty International. It is the universal self-delusion of the West. OK, so now the Palestinian people have spoken, and they have spoken for Hamas. Since Amnesty International has no power, it will be able to finesse its position more easily than the Bush administration — which does have to make a decision.
The decision to be made is clear and must come soon: Does the United States continue to provide funds to the PNA, even if those funds wind up in Hamas’ coffers? This question has broad ramifications. One of the goals the United States has set itself in the war against jihadists is to create an environment in which free elections can be held in the Muslim world. We guess the assumption has been that, given a choice, Muslims would vote for pro-Western, secular regimes. The Palestinians have voted for an anti-Western, religious regime. Which gives — the doctrine of the absolute right to self-determination, or the absolute opposition to groups designated as terrorists?
The Bush administration does not have the luxury of ignoring this one. Unless action is taken, the money will continue to flow. Sending money to Hamas will surely cause the administration to say, "Does not compute, does not compute." Cutting off the money will signal to the Islamic world that the United States is absolutely committed to democratic institutions, unless it doesn’t like the outcome.
The Israelis, for their part, will have to figure out whether they want to rupture relations with the PNA by cutting off tax funds collected from the Palestinians. Doing that could result in the resumption of the intifada and suicide bombings. The Israelis have no appetite for this. Thus, the United States and Israel will be regarding each other with fairly blank looks on their faces, wondering, "What do we do now?"
Meanwhile, Hamas will be moving rapidly to take control of the mechanisms of the PNA. They have made a lot of bold promises, and they need to turn their election into a psychological victory. At the moment, their minds are not on international relations, but on consolidating their political and psychological position among the Palestinians. To the extent they are looking beyond their immediate realm, they are looking at the Islamic world.
That means that they will be saying and doing things that increase the fervor of their followers and give opponents a sense of their relentless inevitability. Personnel shifts, particularly the replacement of officials known to be close to the West or Israel, will take place quickly. Statements will be made that will be frightening to the West and exhilarating to the Palestinians. In the United States, Israel and Europe, the blank look will turn to serious concern, and the pressure to act will grow.
That will be the critical point. Hamas benefits from a sense of embattlement — the sense that it is confronting the enemies of Islam. As it backs the Israelis and Americans into a corner, and both start reacting, Hamas will increase its strength and authority. It will also look to countries like Saudi Arabia — a fellow Sunni entity, rather than Shiite Iran — and the other Gulf states for support. Some European countries will continue funding Hamas under the theory that engagement will moderate the movement. And that will be the tipping point.
We have never believed that a long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis could be found. It is certainly true that if Hamas, in becoming a governing party, is forced by its circumstances to negotiate a settlement with Israel, then our theory would be wrong. But the other possibility is that Hamas, due to internal political considerations as well as the reaction of Israel and the United States, will become more inflexible. We tend to believe that is the likely outcome. But even if it turns out to be the first case, we long have argued that the geographic realities of the Israelis and Palestinians preclude the existence of two viable states. Hamas, even if it enters the peace process, knows the problem and will demand more than Israel could possibly concede.
The peace process is not in worse shape than it was before the Hamas win, because the situation was never any good. The new constellation is interesting, but not all that different. There will be hints of improvement followed by disappointment, coupled with spasms of violence. We don’t see how this can change.