Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Telhami on Impact of Hamas Victory

Shibley Telhami was speaking today at The Nixon Center on the impact of the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Authority, a subject we have been following here at The Washington Realist.

Telhami outlined some of the dilemmas we now face.

On the one hand, this is a major development--he termed it a "revolution"--for the first time in the Arab world, you have had a fully free election where an incumbent government steps down--this is not simply the transfer of a few seats in parliament to give the appearance of change. It is, indeed, an overthrow of the old regime, the former ruling party, at the ballot box.

But now not only the Palestinians but the entire Arab and larger Muslim worlds are looking to see how the United States can relate to an Islamist government. Is the United States, once again, going to backtrack on its commitment to democracy because it is not satisfied with the outcome?

Hamas' victory also demonstrates that Islamists do have at least a good portion of the "street" behind them--that they can win elections. The recent riots and protests over the Danish cartoons shows the mobilizing power of the Islamist politicians and how existing governments have not been able to tap down the anger, but instead have tried to co-opt it.

If Hamas succeeds in buidling an effective administration, it also creates problems for U.S. allies like Jordan and Egypt which have used authoritarian methods to contain and control the Islamist movements.

How will Hamas govern? No one should have been surprised that Hamas had such support--but it was not entirely expected that Hamas would end up dominating the government. Even Hamas leaders were expecting to have "influence"--perhaps gain control of several ministries that would enhance their social welfare infrastructure, be in a position to act as critics and gadflies--but the expectation was that Fatah would continue to handle the international portfolios. Now that Fatah has made it clear it plans to be in opposition and not to enter any sort of coalition, Hamas will have to handle these matters.

Will Hamas govern as a nationalist or a religious movement? It is the "Islamic Resistance Movement" but its focus has been limited to the Palestinians--Hamas has not sent fighters to Afghanistan or Chechnya or Bosnia. It has been a nationalist movement but its legitimacy has rested on religious grounds. Over time, the PLO could intellectually accept the idea that it would have to accept the existence of Israel in order to get a Palestinian state, on pragmatic and nationalist grounds; could Hamas undergo a similar evolution? And while Israel might be able to live short-term with Hamas in power, over the long term if there is no basis for negotiation and compromise, the situation will worsen.

What about using sanctions to change Hamas ideology and behavior? In the short term, sanctions are likely to harm the poltiical forces most likely to be amenable to the U.S. position--since the police and administration are still largely staffed by Fatah members. Sanctions are more likely to boost Hamas' popularity and Hamas might be able to capitalize on them by increasing its fund-raising among wealthy individuals and non-governmental entities in the rest of the Arab and Muslim world, particularly in the Gulf.

Useful points to ponder. I find it interesting that some of the commentary on my recent testimony before the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom highlighted my comment that I didn't have neat policy solutions to trot out and that we were dealing with difficult issues. I think the same applies here.

It is interesting that Telhami describes what happened effectively as a regime change; it shows that regime change is a two-way street. It can just as easily remove governments which are amenable to U.S. interests or pressure just as much as it can take down anti-American governments.
Drawing on this afternoon's discussion at the magazine (see that there is no post about it yet), this brings up the analogy that was used today about the Titanic and breaching the waterproof doors, that we have tended to see autocratic/authoritarian governments only in a negative light and not to see that there were positives for the U.S. in having governments prepared to contain and hold in check forces that when unleashed could seriously threaten U.S. interests.
Worst nightmare for Washington is an Islamist goverment that can govern and is effective. 25 years Washingto has waited and tried to encourage collapse of Islamic republic in Iran so it can be replaced by secular regime. Now US could end up with Iran Iraq and Palestinie as workable Islamic states facing up against corrupt and authoritarian "reformers".
Another scenario is that Hamas doesn't really care about money from the West which essentially fed the PLO, so why not go for the double whammy--stay ideologically pure by refusing to deal with Israel (they can always keep a truce going) and at the same time starve the old elites out, while keeping intact their own financial networks?
To pick up on something Entilzha just posted, what happens if Hamas decides to subcontract terror operations against Israel to another group, Palestinian Jihad or a completely new group, giving Hamas, to paraphrase the old Mission Impossible, the ability to "disavow all knowledge of your actions." So you could have a Hamas government saying we're keeping the truce, and can't be held responsible for what some extremists do.
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