The perils of the Palestinian Authority’s new Fatah-Hamas government
Jun 16, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 38 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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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