Hamas is infamous for its terrorist attacks against Israel and its desire to form an Islamic government, but once elected to the Palestinian Legislative Council it will likely lay down its arms, run the government better, and live more peacefully beside Israel, said academic speakers at a conference at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev on Wednesday.
"If Hamas wins and enters the government I am sure they will give up the struggle in practical means and be much more committed to the peace environment - much more than Fatah," said Dr. Asad Ghanem, a Palestinian-Israeli political scientist and chair of the international division of the Department of Political Science at the University of Haifa.
Ghanem, who defines himself as secular, was one of several academics from Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the US who spoke at the conference which focused on public debate and Middle East reforms.
The likelihood of Hamas being part of the next Palestinian Legislative Council following Wednesday's elections has posed many questions for the future of relations between Israel and the PA, and between the PA and its financial supporters, including the US and the European Union.
Hamas does not recognize Israel. Its charter calls for the destruction of the Jewish state and the creation of an Islamic state in its stead.
But were Hamas to continue to fight Israel, it would not be able to fulfill its other platform promises, mainly economic and social stability, said Dr. Usama Shahwan, of Bethlehem University.
Shahwan, a professor of public administration and the director of Civic Forum Institute - Palestine, said Hamas's campaign promises, which focus on fighting corruption and other social reforms, require a stable environment.
But its political agenda, which calls for a continuation of resistance against Israel, will "bring an Israeli response, which will make those social and economic agendas untenable."
"They have to deliver the goods to the citizens... so they will need to make a rational choice," Ghanem said, echoing Shahwan. He added, "Hamas is not a worse case scenario. We can live here in peace with Hamas."
If Fatah wins a large minority it will have a difficult time running the government because its members have divergent views. "[They are] like the Likud," said Ghanem. "[But] Hamas is unified so on a practical level it might be more successful."
Shahwan warned that settlements and the security fence, which together cut off many Palestinians from their land and fragments the West Bank, makes the creation of a future Palestinian state difficult and that this could give Hamas too much power.
"People have started to think that the two-state solution is a joke. This may help Hamas in the future. So, we need Israel to rethink its policies in the West Bank," Shahwan said.
Nathan Brown, a professor at George Washington University, was pessimistic about the chances of achieving peace with Hamas.
"Hamas, like the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, has a clear legislative agenda, unlike current deputies and they might show up and do the work," said Brown, who once did a fellowship at BGU and is now here to serve as an election observer with the National Democratic Institute. "I think it will lead to a different flavor of politics, but I'm not very positive about the long run."
The Muslim Brotherhood, an outlawed Egyptian political party whose agenda includes forming an Islamist state, participated in its country's recent parliamentary elections. Although the government stopped some from voting in districts supportive of the Brotherhood, the Brotherhood increased its power within Egypt's parliament.
Ashraf Rady, an Egyptian journalist, said that even if the development of democracy in the Arab led to Islamists coming to power, it would still bring better relations with Israel, because "personal interests" win out over ideology. "The Muslim Brotherhood would not abolish ties with Israel. Nobody wants war."
While it has not opposed the participation of Hamas in the PLC elections, the US - along with Israel and the European Union - has stated it would have no relations with Hamas if they come to power.
However Dr. Husam Muhammad of the University of Central Oklahoma, said the "US must support the results even if Islamists win, if it wants to support democracy and wants any credibility."
Future reform of the Palestinian Authority is unlikely, according to the academics. A combination of no power, no strategy, dependence on foreign technical and financial advisers, and being in a neighborhood of undemocratic regimes would all impede PA reform.
The PA is "surrounded by undemocratic regimes which don't feel comfortable with the emergence of a democratic state in their midst," said Shahwan, "and therefore may do anything to prevent it from happening."
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