Israel, meet the Arab street

Hamas' victory marks a turning point in Mideast history -- and has Israel scrambling to adjust.

Published February 6, 2006 12:00PM (EST)

A decade ago, as Israelis were debating the wisdom of signing peace agreements with Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres -- who had negotiated the Oslo deal and won the Nobel Peace Prize -- pulled out a winning argument. "What's the alternative? Hamas?" the angry Peres shouted from the Knesset podium at the opposition seats. He warned that failure to reach a reasonable compromise with Arafat's Fatah, the secular wing of the Palestinian national movement, would eventually elevate its Islamic rival, Hamas, to power.

Peres' gloomy prophecy came true on Jan. 25, when Hamas won a landslide victory in the Palestinian legislative election, ending four decades of exclusive rule by Fatah. Despite the fact that it is only a quasi state, with most of its putative territory under Israeli control, the Palestinian Authority put on a show of democracy unprecedented in the Arab world. For the first time ever in the region, the masses voted down the ruling party.

Several factors led to the electoral victory, which surprised Jerusalem, Washington and capitals in Europe, as well as the Hamas leadership itself. Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen), who succeeded Arafat after his death in November 2004, proved ineffective for a number of reasons. Lacking his predecessor's charisma and status, the soft-spoken Abbas failed to win the hearts of his fellow Palestinians. A determined opponent of terror, Abbas won the admiration of President George W. Bush, but little tangible support from either the Americans or the Israelis. The Israeli government, which had previously hoped for Arafat's demise, treated Abbas with indifference that verged on contempt. And last, but not least, Hamas ran a more successful campaign, built upon its proven record of delivering social services more effectively than the corrupt P.A. and taking credit for Israel's decision to evacuate the Gaza Strip last summer.

Ignoring warnings from Israel, the Bush administration decided to push its Arab democratization doctrine, and pressured both Abbas and the Israelis to hold the Jan. 25 election regardless of its outcome.

The declared goal of Hamas is the destruction of Israel, whose existence it sees as a desecration of holy Muslim land. The group has murdered hundreds of Israelis in suicide bombings since 1994. It led the militant Palestinian opposition to the Oslo accords in the 1990s and the terror offensive during the recent intifada. The United States and the European Union consider it a terrorist group, boycotting its operatives and banning fundraising for its projects. When the Islamic party won the Palestinian municipal elections several months ago, in a forerunner to its current victory, its elected mayors faced an incommunicado policy from Israeli and foreign officials.

Given this record, the initial reaction to the Hamas legislative victory was hardly surprising. The election raised a wave of fear, in Israel and abroad, that whatever remained of the Palestinian-Israeli peace process was all but doomed. What is undeniable is that it created severe political uncertainty in the Palestinian Authority. Abbas, elected directly by a popular vote last year, is still the president and chief executive. He remains committed to peace and reconciliation with Israel, and is demanding full control over the P.A. security organs in Gaza and the West Bank. Hamas will control the Parliament and therefore the vote of confidence for the next Palestinian cabinet, but it remains unclear whether the group will hold ministerial portfolios. Either way, the cabinet-forming process will take several weeks.

Clearly, Hamas' decision to enter the political process -- which it had rejected before -- has been the most important development of the post-Arafat era. It broadens the basis of Palestinian political participation, which gives a better representation of the public will. And it raises a big question: Will Hamas' new responsibility make it tamer and more moderate, or will the P.A. become more extreme -- or will it be a combination of both? It is too early to tell, as all the relevant players are adjusting themselves to the new reality, and Hamas leaders are hinting at a de facto acceptance of Israel. Domestically, they must decide whether to pursue their religious agenda, aiming to create an Iran-style theocracy, or let go, allowing boys and girls to study in the same classrooms and young Ramallah women to wear their jeans.

Following the initial shock, the main effort of Israel, Western governments and Egypt has been to contain the problem. Israel's acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert, and his foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, successfully lobbied the international community for presenting benchmarks to Hamas as preconditions for its acceptance. The three demands are disarming and renouncing violence, recognizing Israel's right to exist, and accepting all past Palestinian agreements with Israel, including the American-sponsored "road map" plan for Palestinian statehood. It remains unclear if Hamas would agree to change itself so dramatically, trading its ideology for international legitimacy and a de facto pardon for its past atrocities.

The P.A. election caught Israelis in the midst of their own campaign for the March 28 election. It has already become the most dramatic electoral campaign in the country's history, following the hospitalization of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has remained unconscious since his Jan. 4 stroke. During his last months in office, Sharon revolutionized Israeli politics, first by pushing through the Gaza withdrawal, and later by leaving the ruling Likud Party and forming his new centrist party, Kadima. Sharon turned his back on his lifetime creations -- he had been the architect of both the settlements and Likud back in the 1970s -- and his sudden departure has left Israel with new borders and a new, untested political map. Kadima was initially seen as a fad, built around Sharon's immense popularity and lacking a coherent vision. Nevertheless, his successor Olmert has succeeded in maintaining the new party's considerable edge in the polls.

Olmert wanted to run a low-profile campaign, adhering to Sharon's legacy and taking few risks. The Hamas victory, however, presented him with a first leadership test. To avoid domestic criticism, he had to respond without appearing weak, while being careful not to overreact and offend the international community, which has been supportive of Israel since Sharon's Gaza pullout.

Predictably, Olmert's personal and political rival, Likud chairman Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu, was quick to exploit the upheaval on the other side. Warning that a "Hamastan," a terrorist satellite of Iran, had been created near Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Netanyahu revised his campaign strategy to paint Olmert and Kadima as foolishly exposing the country to terrorists. The new Likud posters scream "Strong Against Hamas" with Netanyahu's picture. The right-wing opposition blamed Olmert for the Hamas victory, because of his decision -- under American pressure -- to allow Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem, which Israel conquered in the 1967 war and considers its sovereign territory. Refusing the Jerusalem vote, argued the Likud, could have given Abbas an excuse to hold off the election.

Olmert chose a dual approach: using tough rhetoric ("Hamas will not be a partner," not releasing tax revenues owed to the P.A.) for domestic consumption, while taking a more conciliatory tone (we must test Hamas' behavior) in discussions with Washington, Brussels and Cairo. More than anything, this reaction was meant to buy time, and it paid off. A Channel 10/Haaretz poll, published Feb. 1, indicated that Kadima has maintained its leading position and that Likud did benefit from the Hamas victory.

Only one thing may tilt the balance: resumption of terror attacks in Israeli cities. People who board buses want to know they won't be blown up by suicide bombers. Most Israeli analysts and security and intelligence officials believe that Hamas will try to show maturity, preparing for its new political role, rather than break the fragile cease-fire of the past year. Terror attacks are still carried out by smaller groups, notably Islamic Jihad, but Hamas, the strongest of the Palestinian militant groups, has kept quiet. "Hamas is showing more statesmanlike behavior and national responsibility since the election," Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Cabinet on Sunday.

On Feb. 1, Olmert faced another leadership challenge, this time from West Bank settlers. The settlers were trying to prevent the demolishing of nine houses built on private Palestinian land in Amona, an illegal settlement outpost. The Israeli Supreme Court upheld an appeal by Peace Now, an anti-settlement group, and the government went on to remove the construction. Both Olmert and the settler leaders wanted confrontation, to strengthen their respective political positions. Olmert wanted to demonstrate authority, the settlers to regain popular support after their failure to derail the Gaza pullout. Unfortunately, the event turned out to be more violent than expected, with protesters throwing rocks at the police and being hit in return with heavy clubs. There were scores of wounded. But despite the outcome, the Amona incident is unlikely to affect the Israeli election. Olmert's rivals are bound to support law enforcement and back the government. Netanyahu, who courts the settlers, kept quiet.

How will the Hamas victory influence post-election Israeli policies? Despite the notoriety of the Islamic group, the international community is not going to waive its demand that Israel end the occupation and evacuate more West Bank settlements. Olmert, the likely winner, supports a deep withdrawal and creation of a Palestinian state, in order to preserve the Jewish majority in Israel. "Setting the border" is Kadima's top campaign issue. The Hamas victory will further strengthen the already strong Israeli inclination to forgo negotiations and determine the border unilaterally. Hamas is obviously not a partner for a final peace deal, but it may accept an interim arrangement, even if it is only tacit.

Other voices argue that future negotiations with Hamas could result in a partial deal or a prolonged cease-fire. They believe that Hamas represents the Palestinian popular mood and is showing better governance than the figurehead regime of Abu Mazen. The Re'ut Institute, a policy think tank, argues that a "working Hamastan" could be a lesser evil than the chaotic, dysfunctional Fatah-led Palestinian Authority.

From a broader perspective, the Palestinian election marks a turning point in Middle East history. It is the beginning of a new era, the era of the masses. From now on, Arab public opinion must be taken into consideration, not just the views of the regional despotic regimes. Since its inception, Israel has favored dealing with Arab dictators who "put their house in order." Even when less than friendly, they were predictable and easy to deal with. The peace deals with Egypt and Jordan, the Oslo process with Arafat and Abbas, and the delicate balance of power with Syria have all been based upon the power of the centralized regimes. Israel has been far less popular with the "Arab street."

This reality is over. In all likelihood, and despite urgent efforts to contain the changes, the Palestinian example -- and the previous Iraqi one -- will be copied elsewhere in the region. From Israel's, and America's, viewpoints, the results could bring major headaches: regime changes in Egypt and Jordan, the mainstays of regional stability and pro-Americanism; or in Syria, with its stocks of chemical-tipped Scud missiles. In any case, Israeli policymakers will have to deal with Arab public opinion.

At this point, however, American and Israeli positions differ. The Bush administration is at least officially keen on promoting Arab democracy and public expression, viewing it as offering a long-term way out of the chronic instability and violence in the Middle East. Indeed, the Bush doctrine has been an engine of regional change in the past year, ever since the demonstrating crowds in Beirut pushed the Syrians out of Lebanon. Just how committed the Bush administration really is to its Mideast-democracy doctrine, especially now that the first results have blown up in its face, is debatable. However, Bush remains publicly committed to the policy.

For its part, the Israeli establishment views Bush's call for democracy as an example of naive American idealism rather than prudent policy. Israelis are disillusioned about Arab democracy, either out of sheer arrogance toward their less developed neighbors or because they fear what it will result in. Since the shah of Iran fell in 1979, succeeded by a hardcore Islamic regime highly hostile to Israel, Israelis have seen regional democracy as a Pandora's box. They argue that given the choice, the Arab masses will not elect the heirs of Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith, but the likes of Ayatollah Khomeini. The recent success of Islamic parties in Lebanon, Egypt, Iraq and the Palestinian Authority supports this argument. Turkey, which is liberalizing to back its E.U. membership bid, offers the only example of a Western-minded Islamic ruling party, but Turkey is culturally and historically distinct from the Arab world.

As the P.A. elections approached and it became clear that Hamas was gaining, Sharon made a last-minute effort to derail the Palestinian vote. The Americans, however, refused to listen and forced Israel to pave the way for the election. Washington even rejected Abbas' plea to wait. The outcome resembled the old cliché about the successful operation that killed the patient. The Palestinians received high marks from foreign observers for their conduct of the elections, but the results only complicated matters more.

As always in the Middle East, the revolutionary development was immediately followed by another "waiting period" -- this time, until after the Israeli election and the forming of new cabinets in Jerusalem and Ramallah. For the time being, business will continue as usual. But the reverberations of the Hamas victory will determine the future direction of policies: toward negotiation or unilateralism, a period of calm or resumed fighting.

By Aluf Benn

Aluf Benn is the diplomatic editor of the Israeli daily Haaretz and has been a regular contributor to Salon since 2001.


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