The perils of the Palestinian Authority’s new Fatah-Hamas government
Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
The creation of a new Palestinian “national unity” government has raised a slew of questions in the United States. What should our policy be toward a government that has the support not only of the Fatah party but of the terrorist group Hamas as well? Should all aid to the Palestinians be suspended?
The new government, in the words of the New York Times, “led by Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah, a linguist and former university president who has held the top post in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority for the past year, is made up largely of lawyers, businessmen and academics who are not formally tied to either Fatah or Hamas.” The lack of such formal ties separates the current situation from the one the Bush administration faced in 2006, when Hamas won parliamentary elections. Hamas was then in power, with the ability to use its parliamentary majority to pass legislation and control the ministries. Today, the parliament does not meet, and power resides with Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas and with the cabinet just formed. In 2006, U.S. government lawyers made it clear immediately that aid had to be cut off from any part of the Palestinian government that was controlled by parliament. Aid could flow to parts that reported to the president, who was independently elected, and it did: to the office of the president, the security forces the president controlled, and other independent parts of the Palestinian government such as elected mayors.
The situation today is not yet clear, but it appears that Hamas, as a party and terrorist group, will not control any parts of the Palestinian Authority in this new “technocratic” government. That should mean that aid projects—for example, work on sewage or water systems or schools or hospitals—can continue. If it appears that a particular minister actually takes orders from Hamas, that ministry should be cut off. Security assistance should be continued, for it benefits Israelis as much as Palestinians—as long as the recent levels of security cooperation between the PA forces and Israel continue. The greatest immediate risk from the Fatah-Hamas deal is that the security forces in the West Bank, which have been vigilant and active against Hamas and other terrorist groups, might now dial down their activity in order to avoid confrontations. That would allow Hamas to gain ground in the West Bank and is the most serious danger from the unity deal. American officials should be warning the PA against this now and threatening aid cutoffs if such a trend appears.
But much of the aid the United States gives to the PA is cash—and that money should not be delivered until the situation is much better understood than it is today. Who will run what? What will Hamas’s influence be? How much freedom will it have to agitate, organize, and conduct acts of terror? Until we know more, handing over large amounts of cash—$200 million this year—would be foolish.
But to focus on aid deliveries at all is to overlook the tougher and more consequential question just down the road: Palestinian elections. The whole purpose of the new government, which is meant to be temporary, is to organize new elections. On June 2, Abbas announced that “the government’s task is to facilitate the issue of elections, which will take place within six months as agreed [between Fatah and Hamas].” In other words, new elections this year. Abbas has many times in the past announced new elections that never took place, but he may actually be serious this time: He is 79 and seems desirous of retiring.
The last parliamentary elections were held in 2006, and there was a major dispute about whether Hamas should be allowed to run. Abbas then argued strongly and successfully (in that he persuaded Washington to back off) that an election without Hamas would be illegitimate: He would be barring his only real opponent, in the manner of all Arab dictators. We in the Bush administration made the wrong call and sided with Abbas, over Israeli objections. As Condoleezza Rice wrote in her memoirs, “In retrospect, we should have insisted that every party disarm as a condition for participating in the vote.” She was right, for several reasons.
For one thing, the Oslo peace accords clearly and intentionally barred terrorist groups like Hamas from participating in elections until they disarmed. Yossi Beilin, the leftist Israeli politician who had been one of the participants in Oslo, said at the time, “There can be no doubt that participation by Hamas in elections held in the Palestinian Authority in January 2006 is a gross violation of the Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement. . . . That this military organization, appearing as a political party, is allowed to abuse democracy is a prize for terror and violence.” And this was not simply a matter of principle and of fealty to Oslo: Beilin and others on the left feared that if Hamas and other terrorist groups found a place in the PA political system, all hopes of future peace negotiations were gone. As Beilin put it, “Hamas’s entrance into PA institutions is liable to cast a veto on future peace moves, without eliminating the option of violence.”
Moreover, the Palestinian case is not unique: There have been, are, and will be other cases in which an armed terrorist group seeks a political role. Such groups always have an advantage when they wield bullets as well as ballots. Hezbollah is an example: Its political weight in Lebanon is vastly greater than its share of the votes because it can (and does) also threaten and kill opponents. To legitimize Hamas’s role is to strike at the principle that competition in a fair election and in democratic politics must be peaceful. In fact, Hamas appears to be adopting the Hezbollah model, transplanting it from Lebanon to Palestine, as Ehud Yaari of the Washington Institute perfectly described it: “integrating into the general political system while retaining independent, well-equipped armed forces.”
In 2005 and 2006 the Bush administration tried to finesse this issue by arguing that an armed group could participate in elections as a step toward eventual disarmament. There had to be an expectation that they would lay down their weapons at some point. Rice tried to explain this view in 2005, before the PA election, in a Q&A session at Princeton:
The then-secretary general of the United Nations, Kofi Annan, said something similar prior to the election:
But “ultimately”—the key word in Rice’s statement and Annan’s—can be a very long time. I suppose Hamas would be willing to agree it will disarm “ultimately”—when the Zionist enemy is vanquished, for example.
There is another reason particular to Hamas for excluding it from the elections and the political system until it disarms: the very nature of this terrorist group. It is worth recalling not only the terrorism Hamas practices but just what Hamas stands for, in the words of its charter, adopted in 1988. Genocidal anti-Semitism and the elimination of the State of Israel are themes that permeate the document.
Not a word of this charter has been changed, nor has any part of it been renounced by Hamas leadership. In 2006, after it won the elections, Hamas was urged by the Russians and by EU diplomats to bend toward some recognition of the three “Quartet Principles”: recognize Israel’s right to exist, agree to abide by all previous Palestinian agreements with Israel, and agree to renounce violence. The unity of the Middle East Quartet (the United States, the EU, Russia, and the U.N.) on how to deal with the new Hamas-led government would have been destroyed instantly had they done so. The organization simply refused. Why? Because Hamas is neither a political party nor even a national liberation movement; it is a religious movement permeated by anti-Semitism not even disguised as anti-Zionism, opposed entirely to the existence of the State of Israel, and convinced that in its struggle terrorism is a legitimate weapon. There is no “moderate strain” in Hamas arguing that terrorism is morally wrong, and nothing that Hamas leaders are saying now—with the election and possible participation in a Palestinian government before them—suggests one iota of change in the organization’s core beliefs.
The time for the United States to state its position, and to correct the error made in 2006, is right now. American law seems clear, but the Obama administration often enough ignores inconvenient laws, so it should make its own views known: Hamas should not be permitted to participate in the elections unless and until it renounces terrorism and begins to give up its weapons—not “ultimately” but now. The participation of Hamas in the Palestinian political system cannot be a move toward peace, because Hamas does not believe in peace or seek it. It cannot be easier to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel if on the Palestinian side one of the key factions in parliament and in the government is a terrorist group dedicated to Israel’s extinction. The notion that pulling Hamas into the political system will somehow moderate it and its beliefs and practices is given the lie by experience in Gaza, where Hamas has ruled since 2007. The need to pick up the garbage and worry about employment has in these seven years had zero impact on the group’s extremism. Similarly, participation in the Lebanese parliament for years has not moderated Hezbollah’s views or reduced its terrorist operations.
The Northern Ireland experience should teach the same lesson. The disarmament of the IRA was always a key goal; that goal was stated in the Belfast Agreement of 1998; the IRA agreed on a method of “decommissioning” its arsenal in 2001; and although the process took the better part of a decade to complete, it achieved its goal. There was no thought of a political process or peace agreement leading to power sharing that did not achieve the disarmament of terrorist groups. So it should be for the Palestinians.
Given the complete lack of reform of the Fatah party (and the increase in corruption since former prime minister Salam Fayyad was forced out last year), it is reasonable to think Hamas will make a decent showing in any elections that take place this year. In 2006 pollsters and all sorts of experts assured the United States that Hamas could not possibly win. The actual result in the popular vote was 44 percent for Hamas and 41 percent for Fatah. Perhaps Hamas’s misrule of Gaza has made it less popular now, but assuming that it does not gain a majority, it will certainly gain some representation in the Palestinian parliament. Equally bad, indeed perhaps even worse, the new Palestinian deal will give Hamas a role in the PLO for the first time—and the PLO is viewed by the U.N. and most of its members as the “sole legitimate voice of the Palestinian people.” It is the PLO that is charged with negotiations with Israel, and Hamas has been trying to get into it, and ultimately take it over, for decades.
In 2006, we in the Bush administration thought we had made our view clear by election day: Hamas would be allowed to field candidates but not to participate in the government unless it complied with the Quartet Principles and began to disarm. When Hamas won, however, our refusal to deal with it and with the new Palestinian government was seen as hypocritical: “You say you’re for democracy, but when the wrong guys win you won’t deal with them.” So the time to make the American view clear is now, not on election eve or after the results are in.
The Obama administration should flatly state that we oppose Hamas participation in elections unless Hamas makes a clear commitment to the three Quartet Principles and to disarmament. We should add that if Hamas is allowed to participate in the election, we will not press Israel to permit Palestinian voters living in Jerusalem to participate in it (something Prime Minister Netanyahu has said Israel will not permit). We should state now that if Hamas wins seats, American officials will not meet with Hamas members of parliament or ministers, because they are representatives of a terrorist group; we will not give any aid to any ministry under Hamas control or influence (for example, with a Hamas deputy minister); we will not assist any Palestinian security force unless it is not only beyond Hamas control or influence, but also actively fighting terrorism. We will not press Israel to negotiate a peace agreement with a half-terrorist Palestinian government or make concessions to it. We will give no budget support to the PA if Hamas is a part of its governing structures.
There may be no Palestinian elections this year; Hamas and Fatah may go back to shooting at each other, and not just verbally. But the voting may come off. As noted, Abbas seems ready to retire (and according to widespread rumors, will not have to live on his official pension). And Hamas is now feeling considerable pressure from the Egyptian Army, which treats Hamas like an enemy and has largely closed the smuggling tunnels that helped Hamas keep Gaza’s economy afloat. So both Fatah and Hamas may conclude that now is the time to take a risk and go to the polls.
But the risks are not just in who wins what seats. For the United States, the participation of Hamas in the elections risks destroying any hope of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and any hope of movement toward peace or even toward a more beneficial and secure accommodation on the ground between Israelis and Palestinians. It risks legitimizing the vicious anti-Semitism and the terrorism that lie at the core of Hamas as an organization. And it risks teaching the broader lesson that terrorist groups can fight for power with both guns and ballots—and with American approval. The mistake the United States made in 2006 should not be repeated, and the moment for the Obama administration to say this is right now.
Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of
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