Weighing the alternatives

Israel’s move to bar Hamas from participating in the Palestinian elections next January 25 almost certainly can only make a bad situation worse. Jerusalem should stop threatening to interfere.

The facts of this affair are plain. They are discouraging no matter how you look at them.

First, Hamas does not recognize Israel, and maintains an armed militia and a terrorist infrastructure. Hence, under the Oslo accords and the roadmap it should not be running in the elections. Israel is entirely within its rights to make this demand. Second, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) does not intend to disarm Hamas prior to the elections; given the fragile nature of the Palestinian Authority and its security arms, he is in any case probably unable to do so. For better or for worse, his leadership style is to co-opt, not confront.

One can of course question Abu Mazen’s wisdom. His own Fateh movement is corrupt and in disarray, and the PA barely functions. Under these circumstances he is practically handing Hamas an electoral achievement. But were he to be persuaded to back out of his commitments to Hamas things could well get worse, not better. And all the alternatives to Abu Mazen’s leadership appear, from the Israeli standpoint, to be worse.

Third, in view of Hamas’ popularity, and bearing in mind its willingness to participate in the electoral process, its elimination from the contest (as Israel demands) effectively means no elections, and certainly no credible elections. Alternatively, it means credible elections in Gaza, where Israel can no longer interfere with Hamas’ participation, but not in the West Bank. If the Israeli goal is to use the elections as a means of separating Gaza politically from the West Bank in order to weaken the chances for a viable Palestinian state, then it is shooting itself in the foot, since the absence of even the hope of a viable Palestinian state increases the danger that in the long run Israel will be unable to maintain itself as a viable Jewish state.

Hamas, for its part, is not likely to disband its armed forces and radically alter its charter merely in order to participate in elections. Here and there in recent years we have indeed encountered hints of initial moderation among Hamas spokesmen, but these slightly softer positions on issues like a peace treaty with Israel are still far from the problematic negotiating positions even of Fateh, not to mention Israel’s basic requirements for ending the conflict. Indeed, in his ceasefire agreement with Hamas in March in Cairo, Abu Mazen accepted Hamas’ version of the "right of return", which is even more demanding than that of Fateh.

In other words, it’s not as if Israel and Palestine are on the verge of a comprehensive peace agreement and only Hamas is in the way.

Fourth, the United States and the Quartet do not agree to ban Hamas from the elections. Here Israel encounters weighty issues that go far beyond the Palestinian situation. In the name of participatory democracy, President George W. Bush’s Arab reform policies are actively enfranchising radical Islamist parties with armed militias: in Iraq, where they form the government; in Lebanon, where Hizballah now holds government ministries; and now, potentially, in Palestine. When you ask senior American officials where this is leading, they express optimism that democracy is the best system and enfranchisement the best way to persuade Islamic radicals to modify their policies and disband their militias. In the Palestinian case they reject outside interference in Abbas’ electoral format. Many moderate Palestinians, incidentally, take exactly the same positions, adding that they are confident Fateh will still emerge from elections as the largest party, and that Hamas’ participation will contribute to stability and an eventual toning down of its radical positions.

In Israel and elsewhere, as we observe the growing chaos in Iraq and the close relations between Iraqi Shi’ite parties and Iran, and as we note the Lebanese government’s inability thus far to disarm Hizballah and remove its forces from the southern border, many of us are extremely uneasy with this direction in US democratic reform policy. Be that as it may, Jerusalem’s demand regarding Hamas puts it in potential confrontation with Washington. As Palestinian election time approaches, the US is likely to pressure Israel to desist from obstructionist tactics in the West Bank, thereby raising American-Israeli tensions at a delicate time for Israel.

Abu Mazen has surprised us thus far by making good (to a large extent) on a ceasefire and facilitating disengagement. In choosing cooptation over confrontation he has made a virtue out of his weakness. True, his government is so weak that he is not a convincing partner for peace. But then again, neither is our own prime minister.

In any event, can we really now second-guess Abu Mazen and tell him that we know better than him what’s good for Palestinian democracy? Will Hamas’ electoral participation, or the lack thereof, really make the difference between having a Palestinian partner for peace and not having one? Of course, enfranchising Hamas will officially award it a certain radicalizing influence over Palestinian policies. But hasn’t that been the unofficial case thus far, with a powerful Hamas kept out of the system?