Stubborn Realities and the Palestinian Elections

While there was euphoria in some quarters and the gnashing of teeth in others, the more appropriate response to the recent Palestinian elections requires thoughtful assessment.

No election ushers in the “Golden Age” or marks the “End of Days.” More often, elections are a reflection of reality. And the realities that shaped the environment in this particular election, have been brewing for quite some time.

The banal lamentations of some that this election spells the end of the peace process, ignores the reality that there is no peace process and there has not been one for more than a decade. The parties may have gone through the motions, but compare this “process” with the determined leadership and balanced pressure demonstrated by the US in the Irish “peace process” and the difference is clear. Unfortunately this reality has been understood only by Palestinians. Since the 1990s they’ve seen their hope in Oslo betrayed and crushed as settlements, settler-only roads, and checkpoints and now the invasive and insidious wall became concrete reminders that there was no peace. This, coupled with the long-term corrosive impact of unemployment, humiliation and the violence of the occupation, created another reality–”the distortion of Palestinian daily life and culture.

To this, must be added the performance of the Palestinian Authority and its ruling party. On the one hand, they were unfortunate actors in a tragic comedy masquerading as a peace process. From the beginning they were set up for failure. They were given only limited control of their land, no control over resources, and no opportunity to grow their economy. They could not have succeeded. At the same time, excuses aside, some in the PA behaved badly, and in too many instances, abused their positions, insensitive to growing public resentment.

This election reflected these realities. While our polling of two weeks ago, like everyone else’s polling, missed the outcome, we did capture the public mood. We found great frustration with the PA, no confidence that peace was possible and deep concern with internal issues: unemployment, civil strife, corruption and the need for national unity. These were the issues on which the electorate voted.

The election is over, but the realities remain unchanged. The new government will have no more ability than did its predecessor to improve the economy. The Israelis, who, I believe, always intended to unilaterally impose their will by shaping what they are calling an “interim solution,” now feel they are justified in doing so. And the US and European Union, who have failed to use balanced pressure to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace will once again play the “if only” game with the weakest and most vulnerable party in the process, while ignoring Israeli behavior.

Hamas, whose stubborn reliance on suicide bombings played a role in undercutting the PA and giving Israel the excuse they sought to abort peacemaking, has inherited the reigns of authority and must make do with the limited tools available to them. Despite this, if they act judiciously, they can avoid worsening an already troublesome reality.

The new Authority will almost immediately be confronted with a number of dramatic challenges, not the least of which involves personnel issues. An indication of the degree to which Hamas will be a wise steward of the “spoils” of their victory will become clear with the early personnel decisions they make.

It is important that Abu Mazin remain President and Hamas ought not to force his hand. In addition, Hamas must decide who will form their cabinet. This is an area where the party can demonstrate its commitment to providing real leadership and national unity by reaching out to independents and men and women of experience, inviting them to serve. Another area where Hamas can show wisdom is in how it deals with Palestinian civil servants and security forces (both bloated, in part due to patronage, but also as a way of absorbing the unemployed). While some changes are expected, if the Hamas leadership pursues a massive “de-Fatehfication” of these two groups, social strife will intensify, compromising efforts at creating national unity.

Finally, Hamas should recognize that it did not win a mandate to impose a religious agenda, but to end corruption, achieve national unity and create jobs. Given the deep divisions that exist in Palestinian society, if Hamas pushes too hard to legislate or impose their theology, they will aggravate social strife, making divisions deeper.

A final word to the international community. They too must show wisdom. Already there are members of the US Congress and some in the EU considering suspending aid to the Palestinians or boycotting the new government. The results of this election were born out of despair and deep alienation. If the West behaves foolishly, they will only help to fuel this public mood which will in turn feed extremism. A wiser policy would be to find creative and transparent ways to radically transform the condition of Palestinian life. The international community should not only urge the PA President to stay, but should also find ways to provide him the support he was denied in the year since his election. By putting pressure on the Israelis to stop their unilateral behavior and work with President Abbas, and some members of the PA’s new cabinet and the Palestinian private sector, it is still possible to change the realities on the ground. It is this change that will strengthen moderation and possibly change Hamas’ behavior. This election is over, but it is now important to focus on the next one. And for its outcome to be different, realities on the ground must change.