You Asked for Democracy

What Hamas’ election victory means for the peace process.

Congratulating senior Hamas leader Ismail Haniya

The scheduled London meeting of the United States-European Union-United Nations-Russia quartet next Monday —and a telephone conversation involving its principal members later today—will provide the first glimpse of how the world will respond to the challenge the Palestinians chose to present to the world. “We will have to see what approach the different representatives take in the meeting,” an Israeli official told me. The working assumption is that there will be “minimalists,” who continue to reject a dialogue with Hamas but in practice validate most of the organization’s representatives, and “maximalists,” who demand broader and more binding definitions that will place some of the Palestinian Cabinet ministers beyond the pale. Still, everyone understands that there must be some communication between the United States and the Palestinian Authority.

Palestinians weren’t happy “with the status quo,” President Bush said this morning, trying to put a positive spin on Hamas’ success in yesterday’s parliamentary election. Islamist, anti-West, anti-Israel, anti-United States, terror-promoting Hamas was the victorious party in the election, defeating Fatah, the ruling secular party of Yasser Arafat and his successor, Mahmoud Abbas. Sen. Joseph Biden, the senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, gave me a similar explanation in a telephone conversation yesterday from Ramallah. “My impression,” he said, just a few hours after the polls closed, “is that those who are voting for Hamas [are doing so] because of the corruption and inefficiency of the PA and not as a vote against the peace process.” Nevertheless, the senator advised Abbas not to invite Hamas into the government, as “their representatives, unlike their voters,” are interested in an agenda that “will not be productive.” Of course, that advice is no longer relevant since Hamas won the elections so handily.

Bush presented the election as a successful process, and to some extent he is right. He talked about “the power of democracy” and said that he liked a good “competition of ideas.” But the usual problem arises over the definition of “success.” Bush succeeded phenomenally in getting the Palestinian Authority to conduct a lively and nonviolent election campaign with high voter turnout. But where will that success lead? The Israeli establishment has always been suspicious of all this talk about the “democratization” of the Middle East and chose to pursue a more “realistic” approach: Let them have their stable dictator so we can have our reliable partner. That’s why Israel didn’t push for regime change in Syria. That’s why it was worried about Hamas’ participation in the election—which Israel originally opposed vehemently but had to agree to when the United States made it clear that it would not interfere with the “internal politics” of the Palestinians.

Visiting Washington a couple of months ago, Abbas convinced President Bush that bringing Hamas into the political process would enable him to moderate them. He also said that after the election he is going to ask parliament to enact new legislation outlawing militias and enforcing his “one law, one gun” policy. It’s very hard to see him doing so now, with the “many guns” party in the majority.

With Hamas democratically elected into power, a peace process leading to the formation of a Palestinian state is no longer a viable option—unless the organization completely changes its ways. Speaking this morning about the future Palestinian state, Bush seemed to emphasize the word “vision”—meaning something we can look forward to—more forcefully then he has in the past. For right now, though, we can expect Israel to consider further unilateral steps, encouraged by a U.S. administration that has no other options left.

And as for Israeli politics, the new Kadima Party, formed by Ariel Sharon and now headed by his successor Ehud Olmert, indirectly benefited from yesterday’s vote. Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing leader of the Likud Party, started to attack Olmert even before the Palestinian results were publicized, claiming that Hamas’ success was the result of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza. Netanyahu will probably win some votes with this argument, but it’s hard to project a Likud victory over a party that preaches unilateralism. Olmert will have the upper hand since he can say: We told you there was no partner for peace; we told you that now is not the right time for a negotiated settlement; we told you we need to decide for ourselves what to do—so let’s keep at it. The world will have to encourage him and give him all the help he needs. The only alternative is war.