Interesting Times: The antidote to Hamas

If democracy is the antidote to terrorism, how did elections produce a terrorist state?

saul singer 88 (photo credit: )
saul singer 88
(photo credit: )
If democracy is the antidote to terrorism, how did elections produce a terrorist state? Critics of the Bush Doctrine snickered as President George Bush initially weaved between praising Palestinian democracy and condemning its results. As James Glanz put it in The New York Times, "The overwhelming sense among politicians and intellectuals in the Middle East last week was that America's little chemistry experiment had blown up in its face." Has Hamas's election victory, as sometimes Bush defender Andrew Sullivan contends, resulted in a "pillar beneath the Bush foreign policy crumbling into dust"? Actually not. The democracy pillar has become even more important, and faces its make-or-break test. The direction Hamas takes depends entirely on whether its future power is linked to the ballot box or whether, like Nazism and Communism, it is able to avoid the possibility of being removed by the voters ever again. Why did Palestinians vote in droves for Hamas if they were, as is widely asserted, against relaunching the terror war? Because Hamas did not campaign with a pledge to heat up the war. On the contrary, it boasted that it would come to a better deal with Israel than Fatah - a terrorist version of the Nixon-to-China line. There is also no reason to think that Palestinians, even as they voted for fundamentalist Hamas, believed they were voting for an Iranian-style fundamentalist regime. They evidently believed they could have their cake and eat it too: an end to corruption, no worse a stalemate with Israel, and no clerical rule or Shari'a law. The people estimated that Hamas in power would be more like the ruling Islamic party in Turkey than the mullahs in Teheran. But Turkey has its military, its strong Ataturkian democratic and secular tradition, plus the carrot of EU membership hanging over it to keep its Islamists on a path of democracy and moderation. What will keep Hamas from following its religious ideology, which declares both democracy and the existence of Israel to be a desecration of God's law? THIS IS where Hamas has gotten itself in a pickle. By participating in elections, as it refused to do before and has been criticized for doing on both nationalist and religious grounds, it has already conceded the legitimacy of democracy. Hamas is now in a position similar to that of the Likud when Binyamin Netanyahu won the 1996 elections. The Likud had bitterly fought the 1993 Oslo Accord, and it won on the strength of that opposition in the wake of a string of devastating terror attacks. But Netanyahu found himself implementing that accord, including a partial withdrawal from Hebron, which it is not clear Labor could have done. Yet it would be absurd to argue that Hamas will automatically bow to democratic constraints - as if the Likud and Hamas were cut from the same democratic cloth. Still, what the Likud did naturally, Hamas could be forced to do. This is the challenge facing Israel and the international community. This week, the Quartet ostensibly linked aid to the Palestinians to the same conditions Israel has put forth: Hamas must disarm, recognize Israel and signed agreements, abrogate its covenant and combat terrorism. Hamas, in other words, must stop being Hamas. Behind the scenes, however, diplomats are reportedly working to ensure that the West's financial umbilical cord to the PA is not cut. Prepare for a deja vu from 1988, when the US negotiated a formula whereby Yasser Arafat claimed to recognize Israel and renounce terror in return for the US taking the PLO off its terrorist list and launching the US-PLO dialogue. Two mistakes were made in sanitizing the PLO then, which should not be repeated with Hamas now. First, the West accepted Arafat's claim to recognize Israel de facto, without pressing him to accept the right to Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel. Recognizing that Israel exists is easy; obviously it does. What the PLO never did - and what no Palestinian or Arab leader has ever done - is declare that Jews have the right to establish a state in this land. The second mistake was to ignore the need for true democracy. This was particularly egregious in the PLO's case: Yitzhak Rabin celebrated Arafat's ability to fight radical groups without the democratic constraints imposed on Israel. In the case of Hamas, blocking the "one man, one vote, one time" syndrome is even more critical. RATHER THAN getting to work on drafting another formula for Hamas to mumble (in English, of course) in order to save the PA, the West should be setting forth its democratic conditions: a free Palestinian press, an independent court system, dismantling of all militias, freedom of assembly, and so on. How Hamas treats its own people should be no less important than its tactical and strategic abandonment of the goal of Israel's destruction. How realistic is this? If someone had told you in 1999 that Ariel Sharon would become prime minister, declare a Palestinian state to be in Israel's interest, and unilaterally dismantle every settlement in Gaza, you would have said he was off his rocker. There is certainly no guarantee that Hamas can be forced into such a revolution. But trying to achieve this is a lot more realistic that wishfully thinking that Hamas will moderate without massive pressure on the ideological, security and democratic fronts. The West must present the new Palestinian leadership with a clear choice: transformation and full democratization, or a financial cutoff and full pariah status, as befits a terrorist state. If this happens, whichever way it goes we are in a much better position than before the election of Hamas - where the same terror state existed, but with Western blessing and funding. The peoples of the region will be looking closely at how both Hamas and the West respond to this seeming contradiction between democratization and the war against militant Islamism. The West must now show that, far from backing off, it will hold Hamas to full democratic and civil rights standards. The antidote to Hamas is more democracy, not less. [email protected]

- Editorial Page Editor Saul Singer is author of the book, Confronting Jihad: Israel's Struggle & the World After 9/11