Saturday, January 28, 2006

For better or for worse

Hamas trounced Fatah, an outcome no one expected. Why was that?

Fatah was notoriously corrupt. Its founder, Nobel Peace Prize winner Yasser Arafat died leaving a fortune––estimates range from $300 million to $1.3 billion––in Swiss bank accounts. Patronage and graft defined economic life under the Palestinian Authority. The central mission of government––to improve the lives of its people––was utterly unfulfilled. Like Chicago in the old days, the reason to vote for Fatah was so your cousin would not lose his or her job.

Since the return of Arafat and the old guard of the PLO from their Tunisian exile in 1994, they have been propped up by the Americans and the Europeans, and presented to the world as the leaders of a people whose interests have never been served by all who claimed to speak for them. Nasser. The Russians. The Arab League. The Saudis. Saddam. Assad. Khomenei and the Pasdaran. The United Nations.

Arafat and Fatah were accorded the mantle of leadership of a small nation of highly educated people, and those people embraced them. Arafat, who described himself as married to the cause of the Palestinian people, stole millions from them and offered no vision of the future for the children of those who followed him.

What could one do, after all, with a small nation of highly educated people, not sitting on oil wealth? Create Singapore perhaps.

The victory of Hamas was a victory over entrenched, cynical corruption and a vote of hope that the future can be better than the past. In the first national elections since Arafat’s death, his party and his cronies were thrown out. Why was it so hard to imagine? One wonders.

What happens next? The easy answer is that this will be a setback for peace in the Middle East. After all, Hamas is an organization unremittingly committed to the destruction of Israel and to the Islamist goals of the Muslim Brotherhood from which it sprang

But what will happen next? One thing is clear, the Peace Process of Oslo and Wye River is dead as we know it. But this is perhaps a good thing, as it was dead before the vote. Now, Hamas must govern and the weapons that Hamas wields will be the weapons of a government. The struggle with Israel will no longer be asymmetric, it will be state-to-state, and the rules of plausible deniability will no longer govern.

When a Palestinian blows up a bus in Haifa, leaving the bodies of dead women and children in the street, one need no longer listen to denunciations and expressions of regret by the Palestinian Authority. Such an attack can now simply be viewed as an act of war, launched by a state against a state that it is sworn to destroy.

This is the future that people fear, but there can be a cleansing aspect to the clarity of roles that will ensue. With this clarity, and with the accountability of Hamas to the people of Palestine––to the people of the State of Palestine that yet might be––there may come a transformation. The responsibility to lead, and to lead toward a better future for the Palestinian people, may draw Hamas to realism and away from terrorism.

This may not happen. In Iran, the victory over the Shah over twenty-five years ago has not led to moderation. The Council of Guardians has built its own repressive institutions and seen in its oil wealth and the nuclear program begun by the Shah an opportunity to realize age-old dreams of regional power and newer aspirations to lead the Islamist struggle. Hamas may choose to broaden its struggle into alliances with others, like Iran, who remain committed to the destruction of Israel.

Central to the question of “whither Palestine” is how deeply entrenched democracy has become. If Hamas becomes captive of and committed to leading a democratic Palestine, then the needs of the people there for governance, for peace and for hope will overwhelm Hamas’ narrower mission and Charter. If on the other hand, an Islamist Palestine migrates down the Algerian path of “one man, one vote, one time” then the turmoil within Palestine and among Hamas, Fatah, Al Aksa, Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad has just begun. If that is the direction Hamas chooses, Israel will build her wall and the world will lose interest in another nation at war with itself that possesses no oil to draw the world’s concern. The Palestinian people will have made their choice, and they will be the worse off for it.

Ironically, the greatest challenge that Hamas faces may not come from the Israelis, or even from the recalcitrant Fatah and the defeated secularists, as Hamas has the ability to reach out to both and find accommodation. The greatest challenge may come from Islamic Jihad, Hesbollah and Iran. Iran, whose Pasdaran created and controls Hezbollah and elements of Islamic Jihad, has no interest in accommodation with Israel and can undermine Hamas if it chooses the path toward peace.

Hamas has a choice to make. War with Israel in its role as the head of the Palestinian nation offers little prospect of success. The suicide bomber, the perfect weapon of an insurgency with no visible face, will not serve the purposes of an elected government that seeks international support and legitimacy. On the other hand, the Hamas that garnered the votes and hopes of the Palestinian people for a future free of stifling corruption and the prospect of an economic future has a window of opportunity to lead a people and a nation badly in need of leadership.