The big Mideast news tonight is that the Palestinian people have conducted one of the most free, open and democratic elections in the entire Arab world. Palestinians made history. A million of them decided…well, we’re not really sure what they decided. But after hours of uncertainty in which a narrow Fatah victory was projected, it now appears that Hamas has won a sweeping victory, possibly winning as many as 70 out of 132 seats in the new assemby.
This would be a stunning upset over Fatah, thus dislodging the latter as the dominant political force in Palestinian society. While it’s too soon to write off Fatah–this outcome probably means the passing of the guard from an old generation of semi-fossilized veterans of Palestinian resistance to a younger generation represented by Marwan Barghouti and those yet to emerge from the ranks of Hamas.
Khalil Shikaki showed Fatah winning 42 percent of the national vote and Hamas 35 percent, with a margin of sampling error of 2 percentage points.
Another such survey from Birzeit University indicated that Fatah would get 46 percent of the vote to Hamas’s 39 percent.
However Haaretz, after initially predicting a Fatah victory, appears to have changed course:
The first of the final results in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council indicated Thursday that Hamas has captured most of the major constituencies in the West Bank and Gaza, making it likely that the group would also win a parliamentary majority.
An exit poll released Wednesday night had indicated that Fatah won 58 seats in the elections, followed closely by Hamas with 53 seats.
In the same Haaretz article, Hamas representatives claim to have won 70 seats out of 132 in the assembly which would mean quite a sweeping victory for them. The Palestinian Election Commission has delayed announcement of official results by ten hours without giving any reason. So it appears things will be in confusion for some while.
But while democracy has triumphed in the Mideast, which should make folks like George Bush happy, the results will drive crazy those western nations which are attempting to forge a consensus for peace. An outright Hamas victory which leads to a Hamas-dominated government will make many western political leaders stomp up and down denouncing Hamas as a terror organization with which it is impossible to do business. You see their darling, Fatah, made a hash out of the election campaign (with Israel providing much help to Hamas along the way). So the beau who was supposed to get the girl appears to have lost her to the upstart suitor, Hamas.
Several outcomes are possible:
1. Hamas could form the next government solely from its own ranks.
2. Hamas, considering the uncharted political territory it is navigating with its possible victory, will find discretion the better part of valor and ask Fatah to join a power-sharing national unity government with the latter as junior partner.
The BBC is now reporting that the Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qurei, has submitted his resignation:
“I am going to present my resignation to President Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and Hamas should form the [new] government,” Mr Qurei told journalists, according to AFP news agency.
But one must keep in mind that Qurei announced last month that he would not run in the elections because Abbas had capitulated to Barghouti and shut the Old Guard out of Fatah’s election lists. So Qurei’s announcement may be a sour grapes attempt to hasten Fatah’s departure from government. Additionally, there is no love lost between Qurei and Abbas, so I wouldn’t view Qurei’s statements as authoritative.
At any rate, it’s going to be a wild and woolly ride for the coming weeks before we find out which direction things go.
I would counsel the U.S., Israeli and European governments not to get too lathered up at this point by Hamas’ remarkable success. If you throw down your markers too early you may make statements regarding Hamas you will live to regret. For example, if Olmert or Bush say they will never negotiate with Hamas in any way shape or form, they will live to eat their words. In the 1970s, Israeli governments routinely declared they would never negotiate with the PLO (I was once stoned at a Jerusalem demonstration in 1972 which advocated this position). Guess what they did? Right, they negotiated with the PLO.
And if Hamas has indeed won this election and continues to play a major role in Palestinian electoral politics over the coming months and years, then these governments will have to negotiate with Hamas. There will simply be no choice.
George Bush’s latest statements on Hamas in a Wall Street Journal interview have been somewhat nuanced (though the WSJ interviewer had better prognostication skills than the president):
Bush: Hamas must…reject and get rid of their platform that says the destruction of Israel. You can’t be a peaceful democratic political party, yet part of your platform is to destroy your neighbor.
WSJ: Well, but does that complicate things? I mean, they’re almost certain to win —
Bush: Yes, it complicates things. Absolutely. A political party that says I’m going to destroy my neighbor complicates things. And we’ll see how the elections go. You’re prejudging the elections.
WSJ: Well, I know.
Bush: Well, you shouldn’t do that.
WSJ: Although, it’s pretty conventional —
Bush: Well, I don’t know what — who knows what the government is going to look like. My only point is that you can’t have members of — a political party, in order to be viable, is one that professes peace, in my judgment, in order that it will keep the peace. And so you’re getting a sense of how I’m going to deal with Hamas if they end up in positions of responsibility. And the answer is not until you renounce your desire to destroy Israel will we deal with you.
Ehud Olmert’s response according to AFP, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a far more emphatic ‘nyet:’
But Israel’s acting leader Ehud Olmert said the Jewish state would not allow Hamas, responsible for dozens of suicide bombings over the past five years, to become part of the Palestinian Authority.
“Israel cannot allow Hamas to become part of the Palestinian Authority in its current form,” Olmert said.
One has to ask…how can Israel prevent such an outcome? Particularly if, as Hamas operatives claim, they won as many as 70 seats in the 132-seat assembly? Does Olmert think he can somehow put the genie back in the bottle?
It will also be interesting to watch how Hamas responds to this astonishing outcome. Either the ‘realists’ will come to the fore and continue the process of engagement with electoral politics begun with this campaign (thereby sidelining Hamas’ militant-rejectionist wing); or the election will prove to be a temporary sideline after which Hamas will return to its normative terror-focused agenda. If neither the realists or the militants win this battle, then Hamas may collapse into two (or more) fractious factions.
Finally, I am concerned that a Hamas victory will turn Ehud Olmert away from the promising signals he was sending prior to the elections about being willing to open final-status talks with Palestinians leading to two independent states. He had also stated his willingness to evacuate further West Bank settlements as part of this process. I worry that Hamas’ success will cause Olmert to return to Sharon’s unilateral approach, which can at most win interim successes but not lead to a comprehensive settlement of the conflict. Likud will now be nipping at his heels, excoriating him at every turn if he does not toe the anti-Hamas line with sufficient fervor.