Here in the Middle East, we like our political problems to be complex enough to keep us happily (if not fruitfully) occupied for years on end trying to work them out. One of our most successful techniques is to construct situations that have no simple “correct” solution, and then to argue incessantly over which potential not-quite-solution is less wrong than the others. It’s endless fun, and provides wonderful excuses for not actually doing anything constructive.
Our latest controversy (the last time I checked) is over whether Hamas should be permitted to participate in upcoming Palestinian legislative elections. Opponents of Hamas’ participation – including Israel’s Prime Minister and our Foreign Minister – believe that by taking part in electoral politics, Hamas will gain an undeserved level of protection for its leadership; after all, as fellow devoted democrats, we can hardly assassinate candidates for public office on their way to a baby-kissing session! Further, should Hamas win the elections (or come close enough that it is needed to create a governing coalition), it will achieve a level of legitimacy completely at odds with our view of it as a terrorist organization. If the leader of Hamas becomes “the democratically-elected leader of the Palestinian people” – particularly if he does so in genuinely free and fair elections – we will certainly face some pressure to engage in negotiations with him, despite our utter rejection of all he represents.
As a blogger, I’m supposed to express strong, unequivocal opinions in brief, snappy bits of prose. Sadly, I’m not terribly good at being brief and snappy; and this time I’m afraid I’m going to be wishy-washy as well. Despite the fact that I disagree with Ariel Sharon and Silvan Shalom on this issue, I must admit that their arguments against Hamas’ acceptance as a Palestinian political party are cogent ones. I can hardly feel ecstatic about allowing Hamas to participate in the elections, but I believe that banning the organization from competing (or obstructing the elections because of Hamas’ participation) would be even worse than letting the elections proceed with Hamas as one of the competitors.
My first objection to the exclusion of Hamas is a simple one: Treating Hamas as a pariah while accepting Fatah as a legitimate political movement overstates the differences between the two organizations, and effectively weakens Israel in its dealings with Fatah-led Palestinian governments. It may be true that Fatah today is less active as a terror organization than Hamas is, particularly if we classify the Martyrs of al-Aqsa as being more of a local Hizballah front these days than a part of Fatah; but Fatah has yet to repudiate terrorism in any convincing way. Mahmoud Abbas (a.k.a. Abu Mazen) has frequently objected to terror attacks as “harmful to the Palestinian cause”, but he (along with the rest of the Fatah leadership) has never taken a clear stand against terrorism as a categorical evil that can never be accepted as part of the Palestinian national struggle.
By objecting to Hamas while accepting Fatah as a legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, Israel’s government whitewashes Fatah’s incontrovertibly terrorist past and ambiguously terrorist present. I believe that we’d be better off were we to make it clear that we consider both Fatah and Hamas to be heavily “tainted” by terrorism (to put it mildly). This would not only reduce Fatah’s leverage as an adversary at the bargaining table; it would also encourage the creation or evolution of genuinely anti-terrorist political voices among the Palestinians. (What’s sad, of course, is that there is still no significant Palestinian political party that completely repudiates terrorism. The Palestinian voter concerned about this issue is still faced, at best, with a choice between “Yes!” and “Mmmmmaybe.”)
Another objection to excluding Hamas from Palestinian legislative elections is that with Hamas sidelined, Fatah would be left to run almost unopposed. Independent candidates and other opposition parties do exist, but without Hamas as the principal opposition party there is no chance of a strong challenge to Fatah’s dominance in national-level Palestinian politics. Without an opposition that has some realistic chance of gaining power, elections are a meaningless charade; so by keeping Hamas out of the elections, we would postpone the development of genuine Palestinian democracy. If we believe that it’s easier for one democracy to make peace with other democracies, we should be encouraging the democratization of Palestine rather than suppressing it.
Real Elections, Real Consequences
Of course, it’s equally true that if Palestinian voters are allowed to make genuine choices, they can and should be held responsible for those choices. (Even Islamic scholars accept the responsibility of voters in a democracy for the choices they make; but sometimes they tend to go a bit too far.) If Hamas is allowed to run in the next Palestinian elections, Israel and its Western allies must make it very clear in advance that a Hamas victory, or even a result that led to Hamas sharing power with other parties, would lead to a complete cessation of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, with full Western support for this stance.
The pitfall that must be avoided – and this, I think, is a large part of what worries many Israeli leaders – is that many otherwise intelligent and well-meaning Westerners labor under the mistaken belief that winning a fair, contested election (or sometimes even winning an essentially uncontested election, as Yasser Arafat did every time he faced the voters) confers legitimacy on the winner. This is the result of a rather fuzzy-headed liberalism that believes that The People are always right. A more realistic and hard-headed form of liberalism recognizes that The People sometimes make a right hash of things, and that the principal achievement of democracy is not that the voters choose their leaders wisely; the great thing about democracy is that the voters get a chance to repent of their last mistake, kick out their current rulers, and replace them with new ones. (Of course, for this to work, a strong institutional structure must exist to ensure that the winner of today’s election can’t create a dictatorship and effectively prevent the next election. Who knows what might have happened had Germany remained a democracy after Adolph Hitler won the 1933 elections?) When elections are won by the wrong contestant – Hamas, Hitler, or whoever – it’s not the winning candidate who is legitimized, but the electorate that is besmirched, at least until the next election.
So by all means, let Hamas run for office. If Hamas wins or comes close enough to share power, freeze all contacts with the Palestinian Authority and continue Israel’s current course of unilateralism. And let the Palestinian electorate decide what to do next.