Can Hamas Bring Peace?

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Those who wonder what impact the landslide Hamas electoral victory will have on "the peace process" are missing the point: There is currently no peace process under way between Israel and the Palestinians, nor has there been for the past five years. Israel says it won't negotiate with an "an armed terror organisation that calls for Israel's destruction," but it's not as if it had really been negotiating with Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas before Wednesday's election. Substantive political negotiations between the two sides have not been held since January 2001, shortly before Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister on a promise to bury the Oslo peace process. President Bush's "road map" toward peace is little more than an empty mantra occasionally mouthed by both sides when the Americans are listening, but which neither has shown any serious inclination to implement. If anything, Hamas's victory is a symptom of the failure of the peace process.

It's hardly surprising that the Palestinian electorate has dispensed with Abbas's party—Sharon had made it abundantly clear that Fatah was irrelevant to the fate of the Palestinians, and Fatah had made it abundantly clear that it had no program beyond waiting in vain for the Americans to intervene. Sharon, meanwhile, pressed ahead with a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and possible follow-ups in the West Bank. Those dramatic moves, however, were never conceived of as steps toward a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians. On the contrary, they were drawn up as an alternative to a negotiated settlement, an attempt to resolve the problem of the occupation on Israel's own terms. Abbas has clung to the increasingly fanciful idea that by calming the situation in the West Bank and Gaza, he could persuade the U.S. to nudge Sharon—or better still, a new Labor government—to pick up final-status talks where his predecessor Ehud Barak had left off. But Sharon's unilateral moves drew applause in the U.S. and Europe, and rendered the Abbas leadership, in a word, unnecessary.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice may console herself with the fact that Abbas was popularly elected last year "on a platform of peace," but Hamas didn't contest that race. Moreover, nobody seems to remember that even within Fatah, Abbas's relatively moderate positions were under threat: Topping the ruling party's electoral slate on Wednesday was Marwan Barghouti, a leader who insists on the right to wage "armed struggle" to end the occupation and currently resides in an Israeli prison on a terrorism conviction.

Hamas and Israel will not negotiate now, or in the near future, although Hamas has given every indication that it plans to maintain their truce with Israel as it undertakes a wholesale cleansing and rebuilding of the corrupt and weakened Palestinian institutions. But when the two sides inevitably meet over a bargaining table—and history's lesson is that when national conflicts are solved in negotiations, those deemed terrorists eventually end up at that table—Israel will find Hamas a far tougher, but also far more credible interlocutor than Arafat ever was. Just as the hard-liner Sharon was widely held to be the best Israeli leader to uproot settlements—not unlike Nixon going to China—so may Hamas well turn out to be the best bet for enforcing a truce. Its ascendancy may finally produce the accountable, transparent government willing to rein in militias that Washington for so long demanded of Yasser Arafat.

The U.S. and Israel, of course, don't seem to see it that way. Hamas must immediately recognize Israel's right to exist, Washington insists. And Israel adds that it has no plans to talk with terrorists. But even the PLO, which negotiated the Oslo accords, only changed its charter to recognize Israel four years after the agreement went into effect. Denying Israel's legitimacy is the starting point of Palestinian nationalism; their own displacement, as the price for the creation and expansion of the Jewish State, lies at the very core of the Palestinians' collective identity. The PLO didn't change its mind over the meaning of the events of 1948, and nor will Hamas. Instead, the PLO came to recognize Israel as an intractable reality that cannot be reversed by force of arms—just as Israel came to recognize the PLO, not because it forgave its terrorism, but because it accepted that Palestinian nationalism could not be militarily defeated. Each side came to see accommodating the other as a precondition for its own national progress and survival. Sooner or later, Hamas will get there, too. Many of its leaders already embrace a two-state conception of the future, although this question is likely to be the source of a fierce ideological battle within its ranks for years to come.

Having taken responsibility for running an institution created by Oslo, Hamas may have, knowingly or not, taken a major step toward the inevitable. Indeed, ironically, the very fact that it has entered and won these elections affirms the legitimacy of the Oslo institutions it once mocked. Hamas, now, has assumed administrative responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza, territories whose economies remain dependent on that entity next door that Hamas doesn't formally recognize—but negotiates with, albeit indirectly. Five years ago, when Hamas sent suicide bombers to Tel Aviv, Israel would respond by attacking the Palestinian Authority. Now, Hamas will be the Palestinian Authority, making the cost of terrorism more prohibitive.

Of course, Hamas can run the PA without having to engage in "final status" talks with the Israelis. Indeed, it is the PLO, not the PA, that has been the vehicle for such talks until now, and Hamas is not part of the PLO. But the movement is deeply committed to fulfilling its electoral promise to run a competent, clean, and transparent government, and it is unlikely to allow that goal to be sabotaged by provoking a new escalation in conflict with Israel. And being more disciplined than Fatah, Hamas may have a better chance at consolidating the security forces and reining in the violent chaos that has seized the West Bank and Gaza in recent months. Demanding that Hamas publicly and finally recognize Israel and renounce violence is wishful thinking; demanding that Hamas live up to its promises of good governance and its responsibility to the well-being of the electorate by maintaining its cease-fire may be a more productive route. As for talking to Israel, a Hamas government (which hadn't actually expected to win anything more than veto power) may be more comfortable, for now, allowing President Abbas to continue talking to Israel than they would be trying to open channels of their own.

The ambiguity of Hamas's new position was brought home to me during my commute on Wednesday, when I stopped into an old Brooklyn haunt where the man behind the counter is an exile from Tulkarm who makes no secret of his enthusiasm for Hamas and his loathing for the idea of a two-state solution. I expected to find him jubilant, but instead he was visibly glum as he sat watching al-Jazeera commentary on the election results. "Terrible," he sighed. "This is terrible. It means the end of Hamas." In the sense that he meant it, all I could think was, insh'Allah. And on reflection, I suspect he's probably right.