Whither Hamas, and With It the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Vote Reaffirms Need for America To Invest in Democracy

By Mara Rudman

Published February 03, 2006, issue of February 03, 2006.
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The day after Hamas’s “Reform and Change” list swept last week’s Palestinian Legislative Council elections, two 20-something Palestinian women staffing our international observer delegation from the National Democratic Institute started peppering me with questions.

How quickly could the United States pull the plug on the democracy assistance provided by the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute and IFES? What about the jobs and other opportunities provided by the American infrastructure-building economic development programs?

Would Israel’s “iron fist” campaign of the late 1980s look mild in comparison to what Palestinians would face as a consequence of their electoral choice? Would Hamas realize that most Palestinians voted in protest against Fatah, not because they wanted to live under Islamic religious rule?

We Americans would do well to ask ourselves the same questions.

We should consider what this election was really about, and how the United States might most effectively handle the outcome. This election was not about a political battle between those who support negotiated peace with Israel and those who would seek its destruction. In fact, it was not really about Israel or the United States.

This election was about law and order, security, good governance, and the despair Palestinian people feel about the lack of tangible benefits from their leaders’ efforts to build a state.

Hamas ran a disciplined non-violent campaign. “Reform and Change” appealed to the outcry among Palestinians to address extensive corruption within the ruling Fatah party. It selected candidates known for community leadership, service and credibility.

Fatah party elders, most of whom returned to the West Bank and Gaza from Tunis following the signing of the Oslo Accords, resisted for years repeated pleas by successive younger generations for power-sharing, internal reforms, greater transparency and broader participation. Many of these younger Fatah activists, growing up in Gaza and the West Bank, witnessed Israel’s vibrant democracy up close. That was their model.

Fatah’s disregard for internal reform — for airing out the party by allowing fresh voices and ideas to emerge, and thereby showing younger generations that they had a route to future leadership and change from within the party structure — was too often reflected in their candidates. The electorate registered their protest, and then some.

Many candidates who might have otherwise been affiliated with Fatah ran as independents. They, too, believe in a negotiated two-state solution with Israel that results in a viable Palestinian state, and in good governance, and in a greater semblance of rule of law. But for the most part they were pushed to the side by Fatah’s politically tone deaf, and now politically decimated, older ranks. This further splintered the Fatah vote, particularly as juxtaposed against the extraordinarily disciplined Hamas party-line voting.

We should not interpret the resounding protest vote against Fatah as one against a two-state solution. Instead, we should focus on how to keep the Palestinian Authority functioning with the new legislative configuration and how to help develop transformative leadership that can rebuild the trust of the Palestinian people and achieve a viable Palestinian state.

Will Hamas recognize the opportunity to represent more than a protest vote — to truly become “Reform and Change” — by developing a genuine political party, renouncing violence and finding a way to work with secular partners both within and without the P.A. to bring about a viable Palestinian state? Can it use the political smarts it employed throughout the campaign to recognize that its majority support will last only if it is able to remake itself to deliver what the Palestinian people so desperately seek: a government that offers hope that children can aspire to a better future than their parents in a society that respects the rule of law and rewards those who respect it?

Despite many in this region who claim a direct line to the answer on such difficult questions, we cannot know the degree of transformation ahead for Hamas, or Fatah’s ability to rebuild. We can, however, start listening more intently to the voices of future Palestinian leaders. Some are committed to building a state with structures of governance, opportunity and rule of law. Others would rule by less savory means. This election should teach us that we cannot always divide these individuals into neat categories of party allegiance.

The United States needs to make sure we continue to invest in the young women who asked such good questions the day after the elections, regardless of who is running the P.A. We need to help them toward better answers. Their future, and ours, may depend on it.

Mara Rudman, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, was a deputy national security advisor to President Clinton.

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