The Magazine

Hobbling Hamas

Moving beyond the U.S. policy of Three No's.

Apr 3, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 27 • By ROBERT SATLOFF
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

And what about democracy, the critics will say? Doesn't the Palestinian democratic process deserve our respect? The messy answer is that Washington made a mistake by acceding to an election in which Hamas could participate without first renouncing violence and recognizing Israel. Every democracy requires its participants to play by the rules, but we ignored the most basic rule of all: the choice of ballots over bullets. The Oslo Accords themselves had well-defined candidacy requirements for would-be legislative aspirants. But we foolishly acceded to PA president Mahmoud Abbas's decision to waive those requirements for Hamas. Admitting our mistake now is a bitter pill to swallow, but, in the long run, it will strengthen our ability to advance democracy among Palestinians and elsewhere in the Middle East.

At the moment, Palestinians pay little price for choosing a terrorist leadership. A new strategy based on vigorous efforts to stop international financial transactions and block all but narrowly defined humanitarian assistance would tell them that their actions have consequences. In the near term, this might conceivably propel into the streets the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who did not vote for a radical Islamist government, perhaps even triggering the collapse of the Hamas regime.

Many of these voters, though, were themselves Yasser Arafat's fellow-travelers, companions in the two-faced game the chairman played as terrorist-peacemaker. In the longer run, therefore, the United States needs to revert to the principles enunciated in President Bush's farsighted but apparently forgotten June 2002 address: "A Palestinian state will never be created by terror--it will be built through reform." This will require a multiyear investment in building a truly liberal democracy in the West Bank and Gaza, one whose claim to sovereignty is worthy of our support.

Aborting Hamas rule will not be easy. With a war to fight in Iraq and no good answers on Iran, the administration may opt not to face up to its mistake and instead put the Palestinian issue in the "too hard to do" file. But whatever we decide, we should not delude ourselves that our current policy will solve the Hamas problem. On the contrary, it is likely to deepen our own.

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, is the editor of Hamas Triumphant (2006).