The Duck of Minerva

Careful what you wish for

26 January 2006

The world is abuzz this morning with the news that the radical muslim group Hamas has apparently won a majority of seats in the recent parliamentary elections in Palestine. The group which in the past has called for Israel to be ‘wiped off the map’ has apparenlty won a a 53% majority of seats in the parliament. Hamas’ victory seems due in no small part to the dissatisfaction on the part of Palestinians with the incumbent government and their inability to stem corruption. However, this turn of events obviously puts a chill on the peace process in the short term. President Bush and Secratery of State Rice have already wieghed in and began the ‘bargaining process’ by stating that Hamas cannot be a partner for peace unless they renounce violence, an obvious message that a government led by an unchanged Hamas will not be dealt with by the US as well as other Western states.

Needless to say this will be an enormous test of President Bush’s democracy agenda. By all accounts the election in Palestine was free and fair (unlike recent elections in the region which were supposed to ‘ring in’ a new era of politics–see Egpyt). This means that while most Palestinians viewed the vote more as a referrendum on the failed leadership of the corrupt Fatah party, the democratic process brought to power a terrorist organization that has not been all that hospitable to the idea of a “two-state solution” with Israel. Dicey, very dicey. There are, of course, two scenarios.

First, Hamas could take control of government an essentially be moderated by the task of governing. This is the hope of many, as Dan has pointed out, and has happened elsewhere (but apparently not so much in the Middle East). If Hamas, under the new pressure of having to deal with an international audience where the violence/rebel image doesn’t play as well, renounces violence, manages to decrease corruption and increase the capacity of the Palestinian state, and comes to the table with a likely moderate Israeli government with a mandate to deal (if Kadima can win in March) it could lead to progress. However, it will be interesting to see what happens between now and the Israeli elections.

The sentiment in Israel seems to be that Kadima will do quite well. However, you have to wonder what will happen now that Hamas is the likely bargaining partner in Palestine. Will this give Likud and some of the other right-wing parties just the kind of argument they need to counter the moderate message of Kadima? Will people be scared enough by the prospect of Hamas that they vote for Likud? Hamas’ actions and rhetoric between now and March may prove decisive.

Second, Hamas could take control, fail to moderate due to the need to maintain support by projecting the image they have cultivated over the years, and essentially run the Palestinian government into the ground–furthering isolating the polity from the international community. This isn’t just a bad outcome for Hamas and the Palestinians but also for Israel. The more destitute the situation in Palestine the more likely terrorism will continue. It has become common knowledge that absent strong state capacity in Palestine, terrorism eminating from the terrorities is unlikely to cease. Israel will have to rely solely on unilateral disingagement and barrier tactics and hope that gives them some inkling of security.

The thing about democracy is you never know who may be swept in or out of power. And while I believe, to paraphrase Churchill, that democracy is the best form of government given the alternatives, it can lead to outcomes that are undesireable. It will be interesting to see whether democracy promotion can pass this major test.

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