Hamas's Choice

Friday, January 27, 2006

THE VICTORY of Hamas in the Palestinian elections creates fresh opportunities as well as dangers in the Middle East. The Islamic fundamentalist movement will now come under extraordinary pressure to cease all acts of terrorism, help restore order in the turbulent Gaza Strip and moderate its rejection of Israel. The pressure will come not only from Western governments and aid donors but from its own constituents. Hamas's leaders had hoped to use a minority position in the Palestinian legislature to exercise a veto over peace talks with Israel while avoiding disarmament and wider responsibility. As leader of the cabinet that will be formed under President Mahmoud Abbas, the Islamists will find their straddle of democracy and terrorism far more difficult to maintain.

Many Palestinians who voted for Hamas don't support the Islamists' fundamentalist agenda: Polls show that large majorities want an end to violence and a resumption of peace talks with Israel. Wednesday's vote was not an embrace of extremism, but -- as President Bush suggested yesterday -- a rejection of the corrupt and incompetent clique of leaders left behind by Yasser Arafat. Since Arafat's death more than a year ago, his Fatah movement had been unable to reform itself or control its violent elements, despite the good intentions of Mr. Abbas. Now, perhaps, a new generation of secular leaders will be able to purge Fatah and prepare to offer Palestinians a better alternative, while crooks and armed thugs are cut from the government's payroll. Mr. Abbas himself should remain in office, as Mr. Bush urged yesterday, and will retain considerable power to check a Hamas-led government.

Israel, which has its own elections March 28, will have to guard against any upsurge in violence, including acts by Palestinian groups unhappy with the election results. But Hamas's victory will simply reinforce the policy of the current Israeli government, which is based on unilateralist measures such as last summer's withdrawal from Gaza and the ongoing construction of a borderlike system of fences and walls in the West Bank. If it avoids provocations, such as the assassination of Hamas leaders, Israel may benefit from the pressure that others will bring to bear on the Islamic movement. In the short term, too, Israel is likely to escape any further prodding from Washington to make concessions it has resisted, such as the relaxation of security checkpoints in the West Bank or the release of prisoners.

Hamas's eagerness to avoid hard choices was evident in the swiftness with which its leaders proposed yesterday to form a "unity" government with Fatah despite the Islamists' control of 76 of the 132 seats in the legislature. The two parties will have to forge some agreement on security, since each effectively controls its own armed forces, with those of Fatah now funded by the government; war between the two is a danger. The Islamists no doubt will seek to construct a coalition that could continue to attract international aid -- without which the Palestinian Authority would collapse -- while evading compromises on Hamas's militia or ideology.

Even if Fatah consents to this strategy, Western governments should not. Instead, they should stick to the principle already articulated by the so-called Quartet of peace process sponsors, which includes the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, as well as the Bush administration: that "a future Palestinian Authority cabinet should include no member who has not committed to the principles of Israel's right to exist in peace and security and an unequivocal end to violence and terrorism." If Hamas will not meet that condition, then it should be condemned to governing Gaza and the West Bank in diplomatic isolation, without European, U.S. or World Bank aid. The Islamists must be forced to choose between democracy and terrorism; between their ideology and the yearning of Palestinians for security, good government and a state of their own.

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