In the weeks since Hamas won a majority of seats in the Palestinian National Council, many commentators – including the Jerusalem Post’s Editor-in-Chief David Horovitz, in his column published last Friday – have referred to Hamas’ “landslide victory” in the elections. Like so many other little journalistic catch-phrases, this one has become a cliché: We repeat it and hear it unthinkingly, so it slips under our critical-thinking radar, depositing its memetic payload of assumptions and implications into our brains undetected.
If Hamas indeed won a landslide victory, then we are perfectly within our rights to assume that this election result demonstrates the Palestinian public’s enthusiastic approval of suicide bombings – since such attacks are a Hamas trademark, despite the fact that the group hasn’t actually carried out a suicide attack in about a year. A Hamas landslide implies that the Palestinians are uninterested in negotiating a peace agreement with Israel, since Hamas clearly isn’t ready to meet even the most minimal standards as a negotiating partner. And a Hamas landslide implies that the Palestinians, or at least a strong majority of them, approve of a fundamentalist Islamist government that will enforce dress codes, forbid consumption of alcohol, and otherwise turn the Palestinian territories into a small copy of Iran.
There’s one problem with all this: The Hamas landslide didn’t happen.
Hamas did win the election, which by all accounts was free and fair. But Hamas won only 44 percent of the popular vote, compared to 42 percent for Fatah. Because Hamas organized itself better – notably, it ran exactly as many candidates as it needed to, while Fatah often ran multiple slates which split the vote – its 44 percent of the vote translated into 56 percent of the PNC seats, while Fatah’s 42 percent of the vote resulted in only 34 percent of the PNC.
There is ample anecdotal evidence that many of the votes cast for Hamas were not really intended to give it a victory; voters chose Hamas in order to protest Fatah’s extensive record of corruption, incompetence, nepotism, and general failure to promote the interests of ordinary Palestinians. (Of course, lots of Palestinians who voted for Hamas actually wanted them to win – for essentially the same reasons.) Considering that this was the first genuinely contested Palestinian election, a degree of miscalculation isn’t all that surprising. The idea that the opposition could actually win an election may seem obvious to Israelis or Americans, but it’s a new, strange, foreign, exhilarating, and perhaps even frightening notion in the Arab world.
Now there’s nothing wrong with winning an election due to your opponent’s ineptitude; similarly, there’s nothing wrong with winning based on voter miscalculation. Hamas won fair and square; and now Hamas, Fatah, the Palestinian electorate, Israel, and the rest of the world must deal with the consequences. Good luck to us all!
The leaders of Hamas, whatever else we think of them, are no dummies. They are quite capable of reading the numbers, and they certainly can figure out the implications: Despite Hamas’ reputation for honesty and concern for the lives of ordinary Palestinians, despite Fatah’s abysmal record in office and utterly disorganized and fratricidal election campaign, despite the Palestinians’ inexperience in tactical voting, the popular vote was very nearly a tie. If Hamas intends to maintain Palestinian democracy and remain in power, it can’t afford to rely on another “landslide” like the last one.
The rest of the world should also be careful in interpreting the results of the Palestinian election. Given that both main parties were heavily involved in terrorism (or, in Palestinian political parlance, “resistance”, “martyrdom operations”, and the like), and given that neither side offered any real promise of a negotiated agreement with Israel that would grant the Palestinians what they have been taught to expect, a 44-percent-to-42-percent “landslide” is not sufficient evidence to support any conclusions about the Palestinian electorate’s readiness for peace or its support for terror attacks.
Personally, I’m quite pessimistic about the medium-term prospects for a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, and I’ve pretty much given up on the short term – but not because of the “Hamas landslide” that wasn’t.
(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)