Before getting into the specifics of Hamas’ overwhelming election victory it might be worth pointing out that Palestine is a representative sample of the wider Arab world. If free democratic elections were held elsewhere in the region, it is reasonable to assume that Islamic political movements would receive a similar level of support. Thus, if Hamas’ election victory is a problem to some, it is really a larger problem than they may think.
Hamas won for a number of reasons. The Palestinian Authority failed to provide Palestinians with the basic services, especially jobs, that any government should be able to deliver. With negotiations with Israel frozen, the leadership, which had desperately sought to restart the political process, was also unable to provide anything by way of a political horizon and hope, and Hamas’ perceived role in resisting the Israeli occupation thus further swayed voters.
In addition, the sweeping victory can be attributed to the policies of the Sharon government that systematically weakened the PA and directly or indirectly reinforced public sympathy for the opposition in Palestine.
Now this massive victory has left many parties, including Israel, the international donor community led by the United States and even Hamas itself, facing several dilemmas. Hamas is left with two difficult choices: if the movement wants to show moderation, it may lose its constituency. On the other hand, if it keeps up its rhetoric it will have difficulty securing necessary international support and will consequently fail as an authority.
But this is also a dilemma facing the Americans and the international donor community. While they may not like the result of these elections, they cannot ignore the fact that it is a legitimate result of legitimate elections that they themselves encouraged and promoted. Further, if the international donor community stops aid, it is not Hamas but the Palestinian Authority that will collapse, something nobody is likely to want to see.
At the moment, Israel is encouraging the world to boycott a PA led by Hamas. However, if Israel succeeds in building an international consensus, it will lead to the end of the PA. This, in turn, will return the occupied Palestinian territory and its people to the direct responsibility of the occupier; something the continued survival of the PA has spared Israel. It is not at all clear that Israel really wants this.
Fateh, meanwhile, the main loser in this election, also faces a dilemma. If it joins a national unity government, as Hamas wants, it will be contributing to any success of a Hamas-led government and thus its survival in power. If Fateh doesn’t, it will risk further public backlash, should people consider that the movement is punishing ordinary people to spite Hamas.
The international community has been sending contradicting messages to the Palestinian leadership, particularly the president, including on whether to join a national unity government. Hamas will definitely exploit these differences. Coordination is not only needed between the different donor countries, but also between donors and the Palestinian leadership. The victory of Hamas was not inevitable, and will not necessarily last forever.
There is now a chance that, with a new Israeli leadership, a serious revival of peace efforts with the Palestinian leadership could be successful. At the very least, it seems to be a necessary strategy to counter the massive radicalization that was reflected in the elections in Palestine. A serious and significant reforming and restructuring of Fateh, the presidency and the Palestinian security services that are under the command of the president, are other ingredients for ensuring a different outcome of future elections.
In the meantime, Hamas will face the same difficulties Fateh faced in fulfilling its obligations as an authority. The opposition has to be able to exploit that by behaving politically in a manner that will bring back the sympathy of the public.