Sunday, January 29, 2006

The Palestinian election

For what little my opinion is worth: I think the Hamas election victory could well become a step forward for peace in the Israel/Palestine dispute. I think Israel and the west will have no choice but to negotiate with the “Change and Reform” parliamentary party, and I think a new breed of Hamas politicians will have to distance themselves from terrorism and the core aim of the destruction of the Israeli state.

I am not about rewarding suicide bombers here, merely making a pragmatic prediction. Once Hamas has to govern, once it is responsible for tax collection, spending aid money and the day-to-day governmental grind of providing roads, water and schools – it is going to have a much harder job selling itself to its now (greatly enlarged) core constituency. Government involves compromise and the experience tends to soften radicals.

Hamas was not elected, it would seem, by a newly radicalised Palestine. It won as most oppositions do: because people were sick of the incumbents. These are not electors who will be impressed by renewing the insurgency against Israel: they want a functioning economy, basic services, and freedom of movement through Israeli managed checkpoints. Those will be the yardsticks of Hamas’ success or failure now: not its ability to cause bloodshed.

It will be in the new parliamentary Hamas members’ interests to clamp down on militarism or distance themselves from it. If they want international credibility and the aid money that goes with it, they’ll have to.

Further, Israel is still the occupying power throughout much Palestinian territory and is thus responsible for basic services. Getting the occupying power to fulfil its obligations means negotiating with Israel, which some Hamas leaders already do.

On the other side, if Israel wants security in its own borders, it has to solve the Palestinian question. And if it won’t negotiate with Hamas who will it negotiate with? Permanently closing the border and leaving the Palestinian economy to (further) stagnate and the Palestinians to starve isn’t a realistic option. Which means refusing to talk to terrorists isn’t an option: though it may be a tactic to try and wring concessions from Hamas about a strengthened cease-fire and modifying its charter goals.

A Hamas parliamentary wing, let alone a government, gives the international community significant leverage to hold the militants to account. The difficulty will, of course, be in how all players manage any splinters of Hamas who inevitably decide in coming months and years that the parliamentary wing are ‘sell-outs’ and go it alone.

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