Washington DC - Hamas' stunning electoral triumph last month has generated widespread alarm, calls to shun the Palestinian Authority and pleas to cut off aid.
The reaction reflects opposition to bankrolling an organization that has neither recognized Israel nor renounced violence. It is premised on the hope that Hamas, confronting international pressure, will be forced to change its ideology or, starved of resources, be forced out of power. All of which, given Hamas' history, is understandable. But it also might be short sighted and, ultimately, self-defeating.
If dealt with wisely, the Islamists' victory could present an opportunity for the United States to promote its core interests without betraying its core principles.
Hamas' victory undoubtedly presents the United States with a headache, but it is an equal-opportunity headache, with migraines for all, most prominently the victors themselves.
Paradoxically, Hamas' electoral landslide might optimize conditions for its political transition, for victory is likely to inhibit it far more than would have defeat. The more Hamas exercises government responsibility, the less it is likely to revert to violence; the greater its electoral mandate, the lesser its freedom of action.
The Islamists ran on a campaign of effective government and promised to improve Palestinians' lives; they cannot do that if the international community turns its back. They need to reassure anxious Palestinian security forces and the defeated Fatah movement; they cannot do that if they pursue an aggressive domestic agenda.
Most of all, they must prove their way works; they cannot do that if conflict escalates. Renewed attacks against Israelis would lead to a swift and far-reaching response and ravage whatever hope the Islamists have for their turn at the helm.
Far better, for all these reasons, to have the Islamists in the PA instead of opposing it. What they could afford from the outside they cannot similarly get away with from within.
Even on the diplomatic front, Hamas' victory is not necessarily a fatal setback. The Islamists' approach is more in tune with current Israeli thinking than the PA's loftier goal of a negotiated permanent peace ever was.
In its penchant for unilateralism and partiality toward a long-term interim deal, Israel may have found its match in Hamas' reluctance to talk to the enemy, opposition at this stage to a permanent agreement and preference for an extended truce.
And in the unlikely event that the possibility of a comprehensive agreement were to be resurrected in the near future, does anyone believe that it could succeed over Hamas' opposition? Ultimately, a sustainable peace might not be possible with the Islamists. But it plainly will be impossible without them.
For the United States, there are policy implications and, if played astutely, potential policy rewards. Don't talk to Hamas, for there is no reason to reward its outlook. But don't ostracize or actively undermine a Hamas-backed PA, either.
Instead, deal with President Mahmoud Abbas and ministries that are not directly in Hamas' hands. Don't discourage third-party unofficial contacts with the Islamist organization in an attempt to moderate it. And judge the experiment based chiefly on what the Islamists do - whether quiet is maintained, who is named to the Cabinet and whether the government's platform respects past agreements and accepts peaceful dealings with Israel - not what they say.
The objective should be to set conditions that will be hard for the Islamists to accept but equally hard for them to reject.
If this seems like a hard pill to swallow, consider the alternative: a threat to halt all aid unless Hamas wholly changes its stripes.
The elections made plain the limitations of outside threats and pressure. The Islamists won in part because of dissatisfaction with the PA, disgust at corruption and frustration at Fatah's performance.
But more than that, and more important, the vote expressed anger at years of humiliation and loss of self-respect because of Israeli settlement expansion, Yasser Arafat's imprisonment, Israel's incursions, Western lecturing and, most recently and tellingly, the threat of an aid cut off in the event of an Islamist success.
Hamas, which benefited mightily from this deep-seated aspiration for dignity, is not about to betray it, and the Palestinian people, which put Hamas in power, are not about to blame the Islamists if they fail because of international hostility.
An inflexible approach to the PA would carry other perils. Hamas, searching for a substitute source of funds, might turn to Iran or, convinced that it is being set up for failure, drop its political gambit and return to the familiarity of armed confrontation. Without the leverage of Western funding, without the responsibility to ensure it keeps flowing, Hamas will be less constrained and freer to revert to past practice.
Should the PA go bankrupt - if Israel withholds tax refunds, bars trade and prevents movement - Israel will be compelled to do what it heretofore has been generously spared: finance an occupation that has been subsidized by the outside world.
As for the prospect of the PA's collapse, poverty and despair strengthened Hamas in the past, and there is every reason to suspect they would do so again in the future. Even those most hostile to Hamas, whether in Israel or the United States, must ponder whether that really is the result to which they aspire.
The Bush administration obviously didn't want a Hamas victory and wasn't prepared for it. But bringing the more militant segment of Palestinian society into the political fray, maintaining the truce, boosting the U.S. democracy agenda and promoting reform are not the worst hand the United States could have been dealt.
President Bush's effort to promote democracy in the Middle East was premised, in part, on the reasonable assumption that electoral politics is a recipe for pragmatism and moderation. The gamble might or might not work. But the least we can do is not condemn it to failure before it has even begun.
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* Rob Malley, who was special assistant to President Bill Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs, directs the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group. His e-mail is email@example.com.
Source: The Baltimore Sun, February 19, 2006.
Visit The Baltimore Sun Online: www.baltimoresun.com
Distributed by the Common Ground News Service.
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