Friday, February 03, 2006

Hamas - Drawing the Line

(Guest-posted on the weblog of Norman Geras - Normblog)

Hamas - Drawing the Line
by Jeff Weintraub

New York Times editorials do not always cut to the heart of the matter. But this recent editorial (January 27 2006) responding to the results of the Palestinian parliamentary election is an exception:
For 20 years Ariel Sharon and other Israeli hard-liners have claimed that they had no negotiating partner interested in or capable of securing peace between Israelis and Palestinians. That always seemed a debatable point, until now.
As the editorial goes on to note, a wide range of mistakes, misdeeds, and failures by other actors over the decades helped to bring about this result, and these include some unwise and self-defeating policies pursued by Israel, among others. That's true, but it doesn't alter the reality of the existing situation and the need to face up to it.
But all of this is peripheral to two central facts. Hamas grew out of a terrorist organization that has undermined every small step toward peace with mass murder. And on Wednesday, Palestinians voted almost two to one to put Hamas in charge of running their government. For there to be any hope of getting out of the impasse in the Middle East, one of those two things must change.
A. This Palestinian election disaster is not an event without previous parallels. The closest is the Algerian parliamentary election of 1991, which I believe was the first time that a full-fledged Islamist party was on the way to winning a majority in a national election in an Arab country. For several decades before that, Algeria had been ruled by the one-party authoritarian regime of the National Liberation Front (FLN), which had led the Algerian revolution of the 1960s; in practice, the ruling elite ('Le Pouvoir', as Algerians call it) had largely been dominated by the military. During most of that period, the FLN/military regime was impeccably Third Worldist, anti-American, hostile to Israel, officially 'socialist', and 'revolutionary' in its rhetoric and international sympathies - all of which made it popular among western leftists. Within Algeria, however, the combination of economic stagnation and political repression, along with the growing corruption and conspicuous incompetence of the elite, made it increasingly unpopular. (Sound familiar?) In response to growing discontent, the regime was moving cautiously toward political reform, including an acceptance of multi-party elections.

The 1990 local elections produced a majority vote for the newly-formed Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). This was an unwelcome shock both to the FLN/military ruling elite and to more secular-democratic tendencies in the opposition. Then, in the 1991 parliamentary elections, the FIS came out ahead in the first round and seemed fairly certain to win an absolute majority. At that point the military decided it was unwilling to accept this outcome and stepped in to nullify the election, disband the National People's Assembly, and outlaw the FIS. It is worth noting that many middle-class Algerians and members of the Berber minority, who were terrified of an FIS victory, were not unhappy that the army had prevented it. However, this move touched off a horrifying decade-long civil war in which over 100,000 people were killed, whole villages were massacred, many artists, intellectuals, journalists, and other professionals were assassinated or forced into exile, massive atrocities were committed by both sides, and the FIS was outflanked within the Islamist camp by the more bloodthirsty and indiscriminate terrorism of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and others. In the end, the regime crushed the GIA, the violence diminished, and Algeria has begun trying to pull itself together. In retrospect, it might or might not have been a better idea to allow the FIS to come to power through democratic elections in 1991. But once the civil war had actually started, there is no question that a victory by the Islamists would have been an unmitigated catastrophe for Algeria, so their defeat by the regime was a better outcome than the alternative.

Thus, the Hamas victory last week was not an isolated event wholly produced by the unique conditions of Palestinian society. In many respects, it is simply the latest result of the long-term bankruptcy of the kind of (relatively) secular Arab-nationalist politics represented, in their different ways, by the FLN, the PLO/Fatah, Nasserism, and the Iraqi and Syrian Ba'athists. A number of these regimes remain in power, but only by authoritarian means, and in most cases their most serious and dynamic political opponents are Islamists of one sort or another (partly, of course, because these regimes have effectively suppressed other political alternatives). If fair and open multi-party elections were allowed in these societies, it seems quite plausible that Islamist parties would win most of them. The existing regimes use this spectre to help justify their own dictatorial and often brutally repressive practices, but that doesn't mean that it is unrealistic. In reality, this has been a central dilemma of politics in the Arab world since 1991, and the Palestinian election is merely the latest illustration.

However, there are at least two important differences between the 1991 Algerian election and the 2006 Palestinian election. First, this one will not be nullified by a military coup. (I suspect that the leaders of the Fatah-affiliated 'security' services would be happy to impose an Algerian solution if they could, but they can't.) Second, the FIS in 1991 was not as overtly dangerous, extremist, murderous, or ideologically demented as Hamas.

(If anyone thinks that this last comment is exaggerated, I suggest perusing the Hamas Charter. Aside from calling unequivocally for the destruction of Israel - ho hum, right? - it rejects in principle any notion that non-Muslims in the area have any rights to self-determination at all, since the whole territory now covered by Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel/Palestine is the collective property of the world Muslim community; it derides the use of negotiations and is explicitly committed to achieving its aims exclusively through holy war, including the terrorist murder of civilians; it lays out an elaborate narrative of classical anti-Semitism reminiscent of the 1930s, blaming the Jews for the 'French and Communist revolutions' and both World Wars among other events, and including bizarre conspiracy theories that involve the Lions Clubs and Rotary Clubs; and so on.)

And, of course, the special context of the Arab-Israeli/Israeli-Palestinian conflict means that Hamas's election victory poses special and urgent problems. These have to be faced seriously and without illusions.

B. What does this imply in terms of dealing with Hamas and a Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority after the election? I freely confess that I am still uncertain about the best practical responses to this latest development.

On the other hand, I think it is essential to draw a clear, sharp line between tactical issues and certain basic issues of principle. The lessons of the past half-century make it clear that if we want any constructive outcomes to be at all possible, then it is absolutely essential for all of the major actors - including the US, the Europeans, the UN and the 'international community', the Arab states, and as much of international public opinion as possible - to commit themselves firmly and unambiguously to two key points of principle:

(1) In the Arab-Israeli/Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the issue in dispute is the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, which should be resolved by a negotiated two-state solution leading to a viable Palestinian state and a formal end to the conflict with Israel. The issue is not the existence of Israel, and this should be made explicitly clear at the beginning of any formal negotiations. (It took decades to bring the PLO and some Arab regimes to this point - and, frankly, much of Arab public opinion is not really there - and allowing a Hamas-controlled Palestinian Authority government to simply go back to the 1948 eliminationist position would be unwise in the extreme.)

(2) The terrorist murder of ordinary civilians is not a legitimate mode of conflict under any circumstances, and any movement or government formally committed to this tactic cannot be considered legitimate either.

It may be that various forms of tactical flexibility might be necessary and even useful in dealing with the problems ahead. But any compromise on these two basic principles would be politically foolish and counter-productive (quite aside from being morally indefensible... but let's just stick to political 'realism' for a moment here).

C. Incidentally, it appears that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) agrees with the points I have just made, according to this report in Al Jazeera.
Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and Egypt have taken a tough line with Hamas, setting a renunciation of violence and the recognition of Israel as conditions for the Islamist movement to form the next government.

After a meeting in Cairo on Wednesday between Abbas and President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian Intelligence Chief Omar Suleiman urged Hamas to take steps on three key issues.

"One, to stop the violence. Two, it should become a doctrine for them to be committed to all the agreements signed with Israel. Three, they have to recognise Israel," he told reporters.

"If they don't do it, Abu Mazen (Abbas) will not ask them to form the government. Abu Mazen will (instead) form the government with other parties," said Suleiman, who attended the meeting and also met Abbas on Tuesday.

"If they don't accept to commit themselves to these issues, nobody will deal with them," said Suleiman, who has frequently been the main mediator between Abbas's Fatah and the Islamist Hamas in recent years.
What is more surprising is that, according to opinion polls, even most of the Palestinians who voted for Hamas seem to agree that Hamas should renounce its core positions:
Nearly three-quarters of Palestinians want the newly elected Hamas movement to drop its call for the destruction of Israel.

This came in an opinion poll released by the Ramallah-based Near East Consulting Institute on Monday.

The survey also found that 84% of those surveyed in the West Bank and Gaza Strip want a peace agreement with Israel while 86% want Mahmoud Abbas, the moderate Palestinian Authority president, to remain in his post.

The Islamist movement Hamas, which has been behind most attacks against Israel during a five-year uprising, has come under growing pressure to drop its charter's call for the destruction of Israel in the wake of its landslide victory last week over the secular Fatah party.
If these polling results accurately reflect the views of Palestinians (one always has to take polling results with a grain of salt), then I wish them luck, but would advise them not to hold their breath.

Whether or not Abu Mazen's reported threat is merely a bluff (or perhaps, from a more Machiavellian perspective, dovetails with what Hamas might actually prefer at this point) remains to be seen. But in substantive terms, the principles enunciated there are obviously correct and fundamental.

(Jeff Weintraub) Posted by Norm at 09:34 PM