The Wall Street Journal

January 28, 2006

COMMENTARY
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Hamas Has Won. What's Next?

By MICHAEL B. OREN
January 28, 2006; Page A8

Hamas's landslide victory in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza general elections is being touted by the Western media as a turning point in the Palestinians' relationship with Israel and in the search for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. In fact, Hamas's triumph will probably have few, if any, ramifications for Israel's domestic political scene or its struggle against terror, and virtually no impact on the diplomatic process. For the Palestinians, by contrast, and for the Arab world generally, the consequences promise to be long-lasting and, perhaps, profound.

A solid majority of Israelis accept that they cannot continue to occupy the West Bank and Gaza without endangering the moral and demographic foundations upon which the Jewish state is built. That same majority would prefer to negotiate with a freely elected Palestinian leadership toward the creation of a Palestinian state that would live side-by-side with Israel in a relationship of mutual and permanent recognition. In the wake of President Mahmoud Abbas's failure to disarm and dismantle terrorist organizations, however, most Israelis internalized the conclusion that no Palestinian leadership was capable of meeting the minimum requirements for peace. Consequently, these same Israelis have resolved to preserve their national interests by supporting the Kadimah party -- which, in the absence of peace talks, advocates drawing Israel's borders unilaterally.

The advent of a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority will not alter these basic Israeli conclusions. Under Fatah, the PA expressed a willingness to renew the peace process but took none of the antiterror measures necessary to reactivate the talks. Hamas does not want peace talks, and will do everything to ensure that such discussions do not take place. In either case, Israel, in order to ensure its vital interests, will have to act unilaterally. There is no doubt that the Hamas victory will enable the right-wing Likud to point out the folly of the Gaza withdrawal and the danger of future unilateral pullbacks. Nevertheless, the outcome of the elections has confirmed Israeli doubts about the Palestinians' willingness to negotiate, and will more probably reinforce popular support for unilateral moves.

With little impact on Israeli politics, Hamas's victory is also unlikely to effect major changes in Israeli security policies. Even before the elections, Israeli forces remained on constant alert and were actively engaged in combating the terror organizations which the PA refused to neutralize. The presence of a Hamas government in Ramallah will do little to alter the situation. There has never been a shortage of volunteers for suicide-bombers or the ordinance necessary for arming them, and augmented state support for terror will not increase the number of attempted attacks. Israel has already developed tactics for fighting terror, and will continue to apply them with success. Indeed, the legitimacy which the Palestinians have freely granted terror by voting for Hamas will facilitate Israel's efforts to defend itself. The PA will no longer be able to claim ignorance of terror operations, and Israel can better justify pre-emptive and retaliatory actions before the world.

On the diplomatic front, the Palestinian election has sown confusion among U.S. and European sponsors of the Road Map. The Bush administration has adamantly refused to deal with Hamas until it disavows violence and accepts Israel's existence, even calling on Mr. Abbas to remain in office. The European Union has been more equivocal, intimating a willingness to deal with any Palestinian government "interested in peace." Still, even the most imaginative Europeans will have difficultly construing Hamas's platform of praising terror and categorically rejecting Israel as peaceful. U.S. and European officials alike have maintained the hope that by taking on the responsibilities of government, Hamas will be forced to moderate its policies. But this presumes that it is committed to the democratic process, and that radical parties, upon achieving power, invariably moderate. The example of Iran refutes both assumptions. Even if Hamas agrees to a prolonged ceasefire, it will remain doctrinally incapable of accepting the legitimacy of the Jewish state or of permanently refraining from seeking its destruction. The presence of a Mr. Abbas as a puppet president will not dissemble the basic reality that Hamas is in control and cannot be a partner for peace.

Even though Hamas's triumph will not change Israel's internal politics or security strategies, and will neither delay nor advance a peace process that is in any case moribund, the elections may have created significant precedent for the Palestinians and the Arab world. For the first time since World War II, a governing Arab party may be willing to give up power as a result of a free election. Moreover, the two leading Palestinian parties may be willing to work in coalition, which, if successful, will represent another breakthrough in Arab politics.

Five years ago, most Arab -- and Western -- observers would have thought such progress toward democratization impossible. It can no longer be claimed that Arab democracy is an oxymoron. This certainly poses challenges for dictators and kings who still refuse to afford their people a role in representative government. The emergence of a new paradigm in Arab politics also raises questions regarding the ability of the democratic model to improve the lives and reinforce the security of the peoples of the Middle East. These are the issues which the Palestinians and their newly chosen leaders will have to address, and of which the Bush administration will have to remain vigilant.

Mr. Oren, senior fellow at the Shalem center in Jerusalem, is author of "Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East" (Oxford, 2002).

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