Critical Currents: Handling the aftershock

The debate over reasons for Hamas's victory reflects little more than the debaters' diverse interests.

hamas in homesh 298 88 (photo credit: Associated Press)
hamas in homesh 298 88
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Political surprises often evoke unmeasured responses. Such is the case with the immediate reactions to the stunning Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections. Shock, disappointment, anger or fear cannot, however, serve as viable substitutes for measured analysis and prudent policymaking - especially in times of major upheaval. Israel and its international allies would do well to keep their minds and their options open as they assess the unfolding situation. They should not initiate actions nor pursue measures which might further exacerbate already strained circumstances. Undeniably, the Hamas success at the ballot box poses grave concerns. For Israel the rise of a movement formally committed to its destruction is, understandably, threatening. For the international community the political ascendance of an organization engaged in terrorism is deeply disturbing. For many Palestinians, the prospect of living under a regime committed to Islamic fundamentalism is truly frightening. To prejudge the future on the basis of instant analyses of these worrisome events is simply foolhardy. The heated debate over the reasons for the Hamas takeover is probably more reflective of the diverse interests of their purveyors than of any careful scrutiny of the factors that led to this outcome. To be sure, widespread ineptness, corruption and misjudgment on the part of the Palestinian Authority, coupled with immense discord within the ranks of Fatah, played a major role. So, too, did ongoing Israeli restrictions on Palestinians which aided in fomenting growing lawlessness and misery. The lack of any progress on the peace front has also had telling consequences. BUT TO suggest that the unilateral Israeli withdrawal from Gaza without an agreement is directly responsible for the election results (especially when voiced by those who have consistently opposed any negotiations) is exceptionally hypocritical. No less ridiculous is the charge that the decision to permit elections in Jerusalem (where all of 6,000 voted) determined the outcome. Indeed, while the results of democratic elections (closely monitored by hundreds of international observers) are not always welcome, they should not be used to question the democratic process itself. Those not totally consumed with apportioning blame for the unanticipated Hamas victory have become obsessed with spinning imaginary scenarios as a guide to action. The specter of a Hamastan, akin to Taliban rule in Afghanistan or the ayatollah revolution in Iran, is no more plausible than the repetition of the Islamic moderation of Turkey or the decommissioning of Sinn Fein in Northern Ireland. The certainty with which these and other eventualities are presented is prompted as much by electoral manipulations and political considerations in Israel and elsewhere as by any reasoned evaluation of likely trends. THE STARTING point for any serious strategic reevaluation is that the parameters of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have not changed, even if the key Palestinian players have (just as there have been numerous shifts in the balance of power and the personae involved in Israel over the years). Israel's basic interests - the maintenance of a democratic state with a Jewish majority in secure boundaries - have not altered. Nor has the Palestinian demand for an end to the occupation and self-determination been modified. Since the actors are new - and with power comes responsibility - the possibilities for movement have to be weighed on the basis of the steps they actually take rather than on what they have proclaimed in the past. The design of policy alternatives depends on the ye-unknown answers to a multiplicity of critical questions. On the Palestinian side it is unclear who will head the new government or what its composition will be. Will it be a coalition with the PLO or a Hamas-only construct? Will Mahmoud Abbas remain in office? Who will control the Palestinian security forces? Will Hamas restrain violence and curb terrorism? How will it allay the concerns of the secular population? Will the new government honor Palestinian international obligations in line with the two-state formula? Will it agree to negotiate with Israel? THE NEXT few weeks will provide some clues. On the Israeli side many issues remain open. Will the transitional government of Ehud Olmert pursue its decision to dismantle illegal outposts? Will it place additional restrictions on the Palestinian population? Will it insist on withholding the transfer of Palestinian tax money? Will it talk to anyone willing to negotiate with Israel? What line will it take with the US and the Quartet? How will these events affect the Israeli election campaign? What, in short, will be the effect of Israeli moves on unfolding patterns? These questions highlight, with increased clarity, one fundamental truism: the mutual dependence of Israeli and Palestinian destinies. Moving ahead quickly with so many unknowns and such uncertainty is thoroughly irresponsible, if not downright dangerous. The prospects for renewed negotiations or for other steps (including further unilateral measures, international intervention or other creative initiatives) rely on the capacity of all concerned to exercise caution, await developments, and dispassionately assess their implications. Now is the time to keep the door open without losing sight of fundamental interests before ' through hasty miscalculations ' the door to accommodation and an end to the conflict is hermetically sealed. The writer, a professor of political science, is a former Meretz Knesset member.