As Hamas considers what to do with the majority of seats it won in last week’s Palestinian Legislative Council elections, one would expect it to listen particularly well to what the European Union and its member states have to say. After all, they are the ones primarily bankrolling the Palestinian Authority.
Last year alone, Europeans coughed up more than $600 million for the P.A., more than one and a half times the amount that came from American sources. If Europe follows the American lead and shuts off the financial aid faucet, the P.A. would all but certainly collapse, causing the living conditions of Palestinians to deteriorate even further.
This generosity could give European governments and the E.U.’s executive body, the European Commission, serious leverage over Palestinian politics. Indeed, perhaps more than at any time in recent memory, Europe has the opportunity to again play a central role in the Middle East.
If European influence succeeds in moderating Hamas and turning the terrorist movement into a sensible governing party, it would vindicate the soft-power foreign policy about which European politicians and thinkers often like to boast. For that to happen, however, E.U. policymakers will have to show far more adroitness than they have in other crises in the region
Brussels’ first reaction to Hamas’ electoral triumph differed little from those in Jerusalem and Washington: The European Commission and the major European governments called on Hamas to end violence, abolish its military wing, abandon its weapons, recognize Israel’s right to exist and agree to the same two-state solution that Fatah accepted in the Oslo accords of 1993. That message was reaffirmed by German chancellor Angela Merkel, who travelled to Israel just days after the Palestinian election. It is a lofty message, but in effect Merkel and her partners are asking Hamas to stop being Hamas and leave the leadership of the radical anti-Israeli camp to other groups such as Islamic Jihad.
At the same time, the E.U. is unwilling to cut off the flow of funds to the Palestinians or even to threaten such a move with any amount of credibility. Most of the support, E.U. officials argue, is earmarked for humanitarian projects like schools and hospitals, and the void would probably be filled by Iran or Saudi Arabia, neither of which is particularly keen on pushing Hamas to change.
If Europe stays this course, it will accomplish nothing more than convincing the incoming Hamas-led government that it can safely ignore European exhortations and not take too seriously the views of its paymasters. Israelis and Americans would rightly criticize the hypocrisy of Europeans, whose soft power would again prove more soft than power.
For European leverage to work, it will require a clear sense of what’s possible. European leaders should not demand everything from Hamas at once, but instead focus on those concessions that the Islamists can truly deliver — and on making both the incentives and the threats credible.
The key demand has to be an end to violence and terrorism. Hamas has actually kept a cease-fire throughout the campaign with impressive discipline and could now open-endedly extend that cease-fire. That should satisfy European demands for now, as long as the government also demonstrates serious efforts to stop other groups from launching terrorist attacks, something the dominant Fatah party has never done with any consistency.
Official disarmament of the Hamas military wing is more complex. In Northern Ireland, it took the Irish Republican Army years to fulfill that pledge, long after its political wing Sinn Fein had joined the regional government. So it might be more realistic for the E.U. to urge Hamas to start the process of disarmament now, and to complete it within five years.
The same is true on the ideological front. It is illusionary to expect Hamas to quickly change the parts of its charter calling for the destruction of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state in all of Palestine. It took the Palestine Liberation Organization nearly a decade to deliver on that promise.
The E.U. should, however, insist that Hamas officials — and not only those who sit in the government — cease mentioning in public these long-term objectives and clear their rhetoric of any signs of incitement. Within six months, Hamas could be expected to produce a public declaration that it will pursue its political goals, such as a unitary state in Palestine, through peaceful means only. And the E.U. should insist that a new Hamas-led government honor all agreements reached by previous Palestinian administrations, as long as Israel reciprocates.
By snubbing a democratically elected government, the Europeans would just reinforce the sense of isolation and despair among the Palestinians and contribute to their radicalization. To coax Hamas toward moderation requires not a sudden cutoff of funds, but carefully calibrated financial leverage.
Such a strategy would fall short of what Jerusalem wants, and may not suffice for clearing the way for official negotiations between Israel and a Hamas-led Palestinian government. But in creating political space for the two sides to achieve progress on specific issues, the Europeans just might be able to prevent the peace process from collapsing.
Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.