This is an immediate reaction and analysis of the Hamas victory in Palestine and its possible impact on the region. This kind of piece will require review and re-analysis after some time has passed. I take the liberty to write this piece now because of the many requests that I have received to provide some analysis. I apologize in advance for being so pessimistic.
Hope will have to visit on another day
January 26, 2006
The Palestinian people have spoken and their voice has been heard. No, the results did not surprise me; I have been speaking about a 55% Hamas victory for several weeks. The handwriting was on the walls, but the pollsters and the analysts failed to see it. The majority of Palestinians chose Hamas not only as a protest vote against the corruption of Fateh and the PA, as many Palestinians will tell us. The people also voted for Hamas because of its political agenda, and the Hamas won because most Palestinians share the belief that the negotiated process based on Oslo was not only bad for Israel, it was perhaps, even worse for Palestinians.
The al Aqsa intifada received wide public support at its outset from a public that was deeply influenced by the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. In the eyes of Palestinians, 2000 Hizballah guerillas forced the great and mighty army of Israel to run from southern Lebanon with its tail between its legs. Likewise, in the eyes of a large majority of Palestinians, Israel evacuated Gaza to the last grain of sand as a result of Hamas’ hitting of Israel inside and outside of Gaza. Israel left Gaza not as a result of a peace process, not as a result of negotiations, not as part of a decision to empower Mahmoud Abbas and his moderate regime. The rise of Hamas is the result of the faulty policies of both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
The election of Hamas put the final nail in the coffin of the peace process. The only remaining elements of the peace process – the Paris economic protocol under which Israel collects VAT and Customs tariffs and transfers them to the PA treasury will now end. The Israeli transfers to the PA coffers account for about 50% of the PA budget. The Government of Israel will not pay anything into the government of Hamas. The Road Map for peace is also dead. Phase I of the Road Map demands from the Palestinians to disarm the terrorist groups and the militia. Will Hamas disarm itself? Will the Hamas run Ministry of Education introduce peace education text books in the schools responding to the international call to end incitement? Will the Hamas end the policy of naming public squares, streets and buildings in the name of suicide bombers?
Many people are suggesting that Hamas will go through a period of reform and change (as the name of the political party under which they ran suggests). There is no doubt that some moderate voices have been heard in the past weeks of the election campaign. There are some people who quote Ariel Sharon when he said “what you see from here (the Prime Minister’s chair) is not the same things you see from there (meaning the opposition). It is true that Hamas may become more moderate and more practical. Hamas may eventually adopt a position that would allow it to enter into some kind of negotiations with Israel, however, I assess that this is a process that will take years, not days. Hamas may hold fast to some kind of ceasefire with Israel, even if it is not negotiated with Israel. But any attacks against Israel by Hamas or groups which identify themselves as Hamas or for that matter, by any Palestinian factions, the Hamas government will be held responsible by Israel. Mahmoud Abbas will be held responsible by Israel as President of Palestine and as Abbas cannot hold that responsibility, his days in government are numbered.
Some people claim that the realities of government and the need to provide bread to the people will lead Hamas into the direction of recognizing Israel and denouncing terrorism in order to regain the financial support of the United States and the European Union which will now end following the elections. Hamas is one step ahead of the United States and the EU. Last week Hamas leader in exile, Khaled Mashal met with Iranian President Ahmadinejad, they didn’t only discuss the rising costs of a barrel of oil, they also discussed how much of those windfall profits would be pumped into the Palestinian economy. The Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority will not be intimidated by US and EU threats to stop financial support. Iran’s millions of barrels of oil everyday being pumped and sold all over the world will provide the Palestinian Authority with the ability to withstand any international boycott.
Some Europeans, some Israelis and some others will pressure Israel into opening a new dialogue with the Hamas. There is no reason to believe that the Israeli requirements for entering into that dialogue will be any different than they were regarding dialogue with the PLO. Israel worked overtime to ensure that the United States and others would not bend to the demands in the 1980s to recognize the PLO. Those demands – recognizing Israel’s right to exist, denouncing terrorism and agreement to a negotiated process will remain the Israeli minimal conditions for recognizing the Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority.
The political time clock has been forced back some 30 years due to the choice of the Palestinian people that was influenced by the failures of both sides. The main problem is that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that was obvious 30 years ago (although not obvious to most Israelis and most Palestinians then), namely the two-states for two people formula will not remain an option even 10 years from now. The acting Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the new Israeli foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, both stated in their speeches in the Herzliya conference this week that the ultimate fulfillment of Israel’s national strategic vision today is the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. They both recognize that the only way to reach the end of the conflict is through a negotiated process, but today, it is clear that there is no partner for negotiations on the other side. Some may say that this has been the clear strategy of Israel for years, to create a situation where there really is no partner. I don’t believe that this was the real intention, but whether or not Israel wanted Hamas to come to power is not relevant today – Hamas is in power and the fate of Israelis and Palestinians alike is affected by the results of the democratic process in Palestine.
Israel will retain its strategic options for additional unilateralism. Israel will probably continue to act to determine its borders with the Palestinians without negotiations. The decisions that Israel will make will be far reaching, even more dramatic than what the next Prime Minister probably has in his mind right now – some kind of limited disengagement while holding onto the Jordan Valley and other parts of the West Bank. Israel will not be able to sustain a limited withdrawal and will probably come to the conclusion that it must unilaterally end the occupation. This will require a withdrawal of some 90%+ of the West Bank. In my assessment Israel will also decide to remove the settlements in the Jordan Valley, but will maintain a military presence there in full agreement with the Government of Jordan. Israel will seek to withdraw behind the security barrier and to lock the door on what they will call “Hamastan”. Israel will not seek any cooperation and will take every step possible to limit economic cooperation and all other forms of interaction with the Palestinian Authority. Israel will say to the international community that the occupation has ended, that Israel is no longer in control of the Palestinian population and that it bears no responsibility for its welfare. The responsibility for the welfare and well being of the Palestinian people, Israel will say, is on the shoulders of the Hamas government of the Palestinian Authority.
The Government of Israel and the Government of Jordan will want to squeeze the Palestinians in the West Bank with the hope that Hamas’ influence can be contained. Israel will fear seepage into the one million strong Palestinian citizens of Israel and Jordan will fear seepage of Islamic extremism over the Jordan River. There will be more seepage eastward than westward. Palestinians in Israel are much better equipped to understand what they have to lose than the Palestinian majority of Jordan. The Government of Jordan will therefore, also limit its contacts and cooperation with the Palestinian Authority.
There is a chance that forces within Palestine will seek to take action against their new government. Fateh armed groups and perhaps Palestinian policemen who have been loyal to the Palestinian Authority may find themselves being replaced by Hamas activists. Palestinian warlords who had a free reign under the past government may be threatened by the new one. These forces may combine their efforts together to destabilize the situation that Hamas will seek to create. While this scenario is not immediately likely, it is one that may develop over time.
One interesting point to raise is the fact that the elections took place under a sense of complete law and order. The chaos and the violence of the past weeks disappeared on Election Day. There was a real festival of democracy. I visited polling places in the south of the West Bank and I was truly impressed by what I saw. Today, the streets of Palestine are filled with parades of cars with the green hamas flags flying high and the mosques loudspeakers praising the victory of Islam. These were by far the most democratic elections that have been held anywhere in the entire Arab world ever. Was the calm and law and order of yesterday possible before yesterday? Could Mahmoud Abbas have asserted himself and the rule of law from the beginning of his Presidency a year ago? I believe that he could have. He did not lack the legitimacy then and had taken action then, we probably would not be in the same situation today. (Spilled milk).
Will the outcome of the Hamas elections affect the outcome of the Israeli elections? Some people suggest that the Israeli public will respond by turning to the right. I don’t share that assessment. The Israeli public will increase its support for Kadima and for Olmert. The Israeli public understands that it is futile to put demands and conditions on the Palestinians under the Hamas leadership. The Likud and Benyamin Netanyahu represent freezing the status quo. Those conditions cannot be met and why entrap ourselves into maintaining an unsustainable status quo because of what the Palestinian people have decided. The Israeli public’s determination to support unilateral steps that will strengthen Israel’s defensive position and further increase international support for Israel will strengthen the support for Kadima. The Israel stock market will respond initially badly to the Hamas victory, and some of the international money markets may speak about lowering Israel’s credit rating, but these will bounce back quickly when it becomes clear that Israel is determined to take the steps necessary to protect itself through continued disengagement. Hamas may try to transport its Qassam rocket war to the West Bank and may even improve the technology of this low-tech non-strategic weapon. Israel will respond to this threat and will have the support of the international community. Without full physical control of the West Bank and Gaza it will be difficult for Israel to prevent a possible ballistic intifada. If this scenario emerges, we may see in the coming years a call for the international community to impose a foreign trusteeship over Palestine in place of the Hamas government. Israel will not be hasty in reoccupying all of Palestine.
From my seat as the Co-CEO of an Israeli-Palestinian institution trying to build bridges of understanding between Israelis and Palestinians, there is a real dilemma. Do we try to build bridges between Israel and the Hamas or do we try to maintain communications and cooperation between the Palestinian opposition to Hamas and to Israel and the Israeli government? It is clear that we cannot do both. Personally, I will not engage in dialogue or try to engage in dialogue with someone who does not recognize my right to live and my right for self determination. I will not sit with someone who wishes to kill me or to force me to leave this land. If I decide to try to find the cracks in the Hamas wall of non-recognition, it is not clear that there are people on the other side who want to talk to me. Yesterday’s elections in Palestine produced disastrous results – both for Palestine and for Israel. It is difficult for me, the perennial optimist to see anything positive about the outcome of this democratic process. I can only hope that I am wrong.