Thursday, January 26, 2006

The Hamas Victory and What It Means

You probably known that the Islamic radical group Hamas captured a large majority of seats in Palestinian legislative elections on Wednesday.

The upset win raises a host of questions, all of them troubling:

* What will the victory mean for the Mideast peace process?

An enormous setback followed by further turmoil.

* What will it mean for Hamas?

The old saying that you need to be careful what you wish for is certainly in play. Did Hamas really want to take over sole the administration of the creakily corrupt Palestinian Authority?

Nope. It had assumed, as had most observers, that the incumbent Fatah party would prevail, or there would be a coalition government.

(Note that Mahmous Abbas, more or less moderate president of the Palestinian Authority and Fatah's leader, was not affected by the vote per se, but his desire to restart peace negotiations with Israel is now stillborn with Hamas at the wheel. Note further that Hamas conceivably could force him out at some future time.)

* Will Hamas now renounce its virulently anti-Israel ways and stop its year's-long suicide bombing campaign?

It's very difficult to see that happening.

Palestinians knew damned well who they were voting for, and the results were as much a renunciation of Fatah, which is widely viewed on the street as out of touch and corrupt, as a victory for Hamas, which has patiently organized at the community level for years and built up an enormous reservoir of good will through its considerable charity work.

* What will it mean for the U.S.?

While the Palestinians have to be judged by the decision they made in the voting booth, it's difficult to imagine the U.S. susidizing a terrorist group, as it has the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, even if it is now coming to power through legitimate means.

Or is it more complicated than that? We shall see.

* What will it mean for Israel?

Coming as it does on the heels of the Sharon medical crisis and installation of an interim government, the omens are bad. As noted, the idea of a resumption of peace talks suddenly seems to be DOA.

Furthermore, the Hamas victory plays into the hands of an Israeli lunatic fringe that would like nothing more than a full-scale war. That makes the omens downright scary.

Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo found a wee (I dare say microscopic) silver lining:

[P]olitical participation can force a hard form of accountability. If there is a major constituency for Hamas in the territories -- which certainly there is -- perhaps to have them in the government, on the line for dealing with nuts and bolts problems of administration, on the line for delivering a better life for the Palestinians as opposed to just peddling the heroin of violence, has some advantages over having them on the outside as a paramilitary force with a de facto veto over whatever the Fatah-based government chooses to do.

Yes, yes, there's a lot of grasping for straws here. But as long as the structures of democratic government remain secure and intact -- a big 'if' -- participation in government tends to force a measure of pragmatism and accomodation.

As conundrums go, the unexpected Hamas victory is a lulu for President "Liberty Is Spreading Across the Middle East" Bush. His response this morning was to do what he and his administration reflexively resort to when confronted by uncomfy realities -- spin like hell.

Bush only obliquely acknowledged Hamas's radical underpinnings and violent history, but spoke at length about people demanding honest government. Said the prez:

The people want services. They want to be able to raise their children in an environment in which they can get a decent education and they can find health care. And so the elections should open the eyes of the old guard there in the Palestinian territories.

That hit uncomfortably close to home -- as in the US of A, where finding good schools and affortable health care are ongoing struggles. And presumably will be issues when citizens of the oldest democracy in the world themselves go to the polls later this year to have their say about another old guard -- the one in Washington.

Finally, MSNBC blogger Eric Alterman reflects my sentiments exactly:
If George W. Bush has had no positive virtues whatever as president, he at least has taught us that things can always get worse. So too, have the Palestinian elections. It would be hard to invent a worse result than a victory for the vicious, corrupt group of murderous gangsters and hucksters who run Fatah . . . if you think that overstated—but a victory for Hamas is just that.

The ironies abound, all of them painful.

First off, it was the Israelis themselves who helped get Hamas off the ground as a potential alternative to Arafat. Second, they have shown themselves to be its most significant political supporter with their refusal to deal with the far more moderate and westernized Fatah, undercutting its ability to show anything for its public face of moderation and therefore pushing people into the arms of the relatively corruption-free, socially responsible Hamas. Third, while the reasons that the Palestinians support Hamas may have little to do with its professed desire to wipe Israel off the map—again—they genuinely provide real services and do not terrorize the population for their own material gain as does Fatah—the net result will be to give the Israeli hardliners the opportunity to further immiserate the Palestinian masses, putting off the day, even further into the future, when these almost infinitely abused people will ever be able to live their public lives with some dignity and, perhaps prosperity.

It’s encouraging to see a genuinely democratic election in the Arab world, yes. But look what you get. This is one of the too-many-to-count fallacies in the insanely counterproductive neocon strategy in the Middle East, which I’m sure will only get worse. In the meantime, the short-term winner of this election is Bibi Netanyahu, which is bad news for all humankind.

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