Hamas Upset Rattles Bush Strategy

The stunning victory of the Islamist Hamas party in parliamentary elections Wednesday in the Palestinian Authority (PA) poses stark new challenges to U.S. President George W. Bush’s hopes of advancing an Israeli-Palestinian peace process and promoting democracy throughout the Arab Middle East.

Hamas, which gained 76 seats in the new Palestinian parliament compared to only 43 won by its chief secular and long-ruling rival, Fatah, remains officially committed to the destruction of Israel and has never formally renounced the use of violence against it, although the party’s militia has observed a 10-month truce in the run-up to the elections.

And while it appears that the party’s victory was due less to its anti-Zionism than to its effectiveness at delivering social services and an image of incorruptibility, particularly compared to Fatah, U.S. policy towards a possible Hamas-led government will likely be determined by whether or not the party shows a willingness to move away from its core principles.

"I have made it very clear that a political party that articulates the destruction of Israel as part of its platform is a party with which we will not deal," Bush told reporters here Thursday during a press conference in which he also called on Fatah leader and PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, to remain in office despite Hamas’ sweeping victory.

While he declined to say whether Washington would cut aid to the PA if Hamas takes over the government, he stressed that if Hamas sticks to both its ideological and actual guns – the U.S. officially considers it a "terrorist" organization – Washington would not welcome it into a peace process.

"I don’t see how you can be a partner in peace if you advocate the destruction of a country as part of your platform," he said, "and I know you can’t be a partner in peace if your party has got an armed wing."

That point was echoed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice who, in a teleconference from Davos, Switzerland, warned, "You cannot have one foot in politics and another in terror."

Indeed, Hamas’ victory, which far exceeded pre-election forecasts that it would win between 30 and 40 percent of the vote, poses as much of a dilemma for it as for Bush and, for that matter, Israel’s Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, according to Geoffrey Kemp, a Middle East expert at the Richard M. Nixon Center here and a top aide to former President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989).

"If they constitute the government and are therefore responsible for what happens in the PA, they have to make a very tough choice very early on whether or not to abandon violence against Israel, and if they do not, and rocket attacks [on Israel] continue, it will be perfectly legitimate for everyone to say that Israel has no peace partner in the Palestinian government," he said.

Precisely because Hamas may well prefer to defer any such decision, many analysts here believe that the party will try to form a coalition government, preferably with Fatah, which reportedly rejected initial probes about such an arrangement Thursday.

"Assuming that [Abbas] will decide to stay on [as president] … and that Hamas will not want to form a government of its own, there is a fair chance that it will support a technocratic government – including possibly [PA Finance Minister] Salaam Fayyad as prime minister," said ret. Israeli Gen. Shlomo Brom, currently a fellow at the U.S. Institute of Peace here and who participated in the Oslo peace process. "They will be satisfied if they are guaranteed influence in the government, mostly in the ministries that deal with domestic issues."

"If that will be the case, then things can continue, as if everything is normal," he said, adding that such a scenario, which would leave Hamas’ charter unchanged and its militia intact, would doom the Quartet-backed Road Map for mutual and reciprocal peace moves, leaving whatever progress can be made toward a final peace settlement to unilateral steps.

"Israel will have to decide on a fuller unilateral disengagement from the West Bank, and the Palestinians will have to build their so-called state unilaterally," he said. "That is the most positive scenario I can think of."

Phyllis Bennis, of the left-wing Institute for Policy Studies (IPS), agreed that Hamas will likely try to form a coalition government that would include prominent technocrats like Fayyad – a Washington favorite – and change little or nothing in terms of a peace process.

"We are hearing all this talk about how can the Israelis deal with the Palestinians now after Hamas’ victory?" she said. "But there haven’t been any [bilateral] negotiations for the past two years except between Israel and the U.S., so that’s not anything new and different."

If, on the other hand, Hamas decides to rule on its own, Israel and the U.S. will likely try to force it to decide on its core ideological principles by laying out specific conditions for recognition, aid, and cooperation, much as the two countries did with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in quiet negotiations in the late 1980s that laid the basis for the Oslo process.

"They will either have to give up their ideology or their foreign aid, economic relationship with Israel, and their [international] legitimacy," said Brom, who stressed that Washington’s main challenge would be to line up a strong international coalition behind such an approach, notably including the European Union, which provides the PA with most of its foreign assistance.

Hamas has indeed made occasional suggestions it may be willing to reach interim or temporary agreements with Israel, and one of is top leaders, Mahmoud Zahar, told reporters Thursday after the election results were announced that it was prepared to maintain the ongoing truce.

"It will be interesting to see if they can tinker with their constitution and ideology to convince us and Europe they have changed their spots," noted Kemp.

That Hamas’ victory was a serious blow to the Bush administration hopes, however, was made clear by reports this week that Washington had spent more than $2 million on dozens of small projects in recent months to bolster Fatah’s image in the constituencies in which Hamas had done well in last year’s municipal polls.

To many analysts here, however, the effort was a matter of "too little, too late" for Fatah and Abbas in particular, who, in the words Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland, had been "left very vulnerable" by Washington’s failure to put serious pressure on the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to freeze settlement activity, free Palestinian prisoners, and take other steps that would have bolstered the PA’s and Fatah’s image and authority.

"[H]is relationship with the U.S., which was [seen initially] as his strong card, hasn’t really gained him anything," Telhami told National Public Radio Thursday.

Hamas’ victory also adds to a string of unprecedented political advances by Islamist parties throughout the Middle East over the past year, including candidates associated with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Sunni and Shia parties in Iraq, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Despite U.S. support for Fatah and for secular parties in Iraq, however, Bush Thursday denied he was troubled by the trend. "We’re watching liberty spread across the Middle East," he declared.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe writes for Inter Press Service.