Thursday, January 26, 2006

Enjoying History: The Birth of Hamastan

There are some days when I don’t devote much thought to the fact that I live in Israel. Those are days when I’m busy dealing with technical problems, doing pretty much the same thing here that I did back in America, in Hong Kong when I lived there, and in London when I lived there.

There are other days when I find living in Israel pretty frustrating. Usually, these are days when I’ve had to reassure Ettie at the bank; she occasionally gets nervous about my overdraft, and the one thing that one doesn’t want when one is perennially overdrawn is a nervous banker. On days like this, I think back to the salary I received before coming to Israel – a salary that was easily twice what I now earn for doing much the same work – and wonder if I’m crazy to live here.

But then there are days when I absolutely love living here – and thankfully, there are lots of them. Lying out in my hammock on a warm Saturday in November; never feeling the need for a G.P.S. system (my secret for successful navigation in Israel and the West Bank: When the signs are all in Arabic, make a U-turn); understanding the people around me (most of them slightly insane, but in nice familiar ways); or just enjoying living in a country that runs to a rhythm that doesn’t feel alien to me, I realize that I’m having a ball here, overdraft or no.

One of the things I like best about being in Israel is the feeling that I’m living through genuine history: things actually seem to happen here. And yesterday, it turns out, was one of those historic days.

I have publicly stated my somewhat grudging approval of Hamas’ participation in Palestinian elections. Now it turns out that not only did Hamas participate – Hamas actually defied forecasts and won the elections outright! This may be bad news for the “peace process”, but I suspect that it’s at least likely to be good news for the Palestinians, and it’s excellent news for Israel. (It also represents a major political milestone for the Arab world in general – how many other times has an election in an Arab country resulted in the peaceful transfer of real political power to the opposition?)

The first thing to understand about Hamas’ victory is that it didn’t really have much to do with Israel. As I pointed out back in November, a vote for Fatah was hardly a vote against terrorism; by the same token, a vote for Hamas shouldn’t be interpreted as a vote for terrorism. Fatah offered some hope of revived negotiations with Israel, but was doing an absolutely wretched job of running the day-to-day affairs of the Palestinian proto-state. Hamas offered no real chance of a negotiated peace with Israel, but has a good record of providing education, health services, and in general acting as if it cares about the lives of ordinary Palestinians. Whether this social outreach work is largely a bit of slick manipulation – which it is – is not really relevant to the beneficiaries of these services; all they care about is that Hamas provides them with services they need, and the official Fatah-run apparatus doesn’t.

By voting for Hamas, Palestinians simply demonstrated that right now, the slim hope of a negotiated settlement with Israel – which likely wouldn’t improve their lives all that much – is less important to them than their purely domestic problems. From what I’ve read of the failures, mismanagement, corruption, and dishonesty of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority, I’d have to say that I agree with the voters.

*          *          *

Who are the winners and losers, now that Hamas has won and Fatah has lost?

Hamas is now going to be forced to face up to the problems of government without having passed through much of an apprenticeship. The organization made it very clear before the election that – while they might be willing to talk to us, if we begged nicely enough – they weren’t interested in abandoning terrorism, recognizing Israel within any borders (except perhaps on another continent), or otherwise giving up their tough-guy agenda in order to focus on fixing potholes. But as the governing party of the Palestinian Autonomy, elected on an honesty-and-prosperity platform, Hamas will be caught in a bit of a bind: Previously, they mounted terror attacks knowing full well that Israeli responses (such as closures and roadblocks) increased impoverishment and discontent among ordinary Palestinians. Impoverishment and discontent were exactly what Hamas wanted – as a force in opposition to the Palestinian Authority. Now that Hamas is going to run the Palestinian Authority, promoting Palestinian poverty isn’t going to be good politics for them – even if they blow up Israelis in the process. My prediction for Hamas: continued tough rhetoric, no disarming, but probably no actual increase in terror attacks – at least not in attacks carried out by Hamas.

Fatah has never been an opposition party before. I think they need the time off, and it appears that at least some of their leaders (who are no dummies) think so too. Every political party needs to spend a certain amount of time in opposition, or it gets soft, decadent, and corrupt. Fatah (as a political party) started out decadent and corrupt, and they went downhill from there.

Labor and Likud – both of which are reading from the same page, really – should both lose by Hamas’ victory, at least if Ehud Olmert plays his cards right. Since both parties base their diplomatic agendas on negotiations with the Palestinians rather than on unilateralism, a victory for either of them would mean years of stasis. Were the election to be decided between Labor and Likud, our only real choice would be between right-wing Thatcherite stasis and left-wing populist stasis.

Kadima should be able to come out ahead after Hamas’ victory, since only Kadima has a diplomatic stance that doesn’t require a Palestinian “partner”. (Of course, Kadima officially says that they would prefer to negotiate a settlement with the Palestinians; but I’ve never taken this claim very seriously, and I suspect that not very many other Kadimites do either.) The main goal for Kadima now is to avoid making mistakes: don’t over-react and look too right-wing, don’t offer to negotiate with Hamas and thus look too left-wing, don’t attack Iran unless the odds of success are extremely high. And whatever you do, don’t gloat, at least not until March 29th.

*          *          *

What should really be interesting – assuming that Hamas does form the next Palestinian government, and assuming that Kadima does win in March – will be watching two unilateralist, mutually distrustful movements trying hard to dance gracefully together without actually touching or talking. Who said that history isn’t fun?

(This post can also be found at the Guns and Butter Blog.)

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At Fri Jan 27, 02:46:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger Khalaf said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

At Sat Jan 28, 09:56:00 PM GMT+2, Blogger westbankmama said...

Uhh, how long have you lived here? I agree with a lot of what you say, but one sentence stopped me in my tracks:

"Hamas will be forced to face up to the problems of governance...."

Wishful thinking Dan. The Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity, as Abba Eban said, and this is just another opportunity waiting to be missed.

Hamas will do nothing more than continue to kill Jews, and perhaps kill some innocent Arab girls in "honor" killings.

At Sun Jan 29, 12:11:00 AM GMT+2, Blogger Don Radlauer said...

Hi WBM - and welcome to my blog!

I think you slightly misread my sentence. The key here is the verb phrase I used: "...will be forced to face up" - which doesn't mean I'm predicting their success or even their effort, but simply that Hamas is now going to be in a position where they will have to face an electorate that put them in office for a reason (and the reason was not to kill Jews - they could do that just fine without being in government).

If I had to place an even-money bet, though, I'd say they probably will do more than you predict. Remember that Hamas already has a pretty good record in areas like education, child-care, and health-care. While I'm not one of the cockeyed optimists who believe that Hamas is going to turn into the Palestinian chapter of Meretz all because they've achieved political power, I also don't believe that their electoral success will be bad news for Israel.

Of course, as always, time will tell. I'm optimistic, but I'm not selling my pistol!


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