JERUSALEM (AP) – Hamas’ apparent victory in Palestinian parliamentary elections has dramatically shaken up the political landscape of the Middle East, elevating Islamic militants who call for Israel’s destruction and most likely encouraging Israel’s go-it-alone approach to Mideast peacemaking.
It also raised questions about the U.S. policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East. Though Wednesday’s vote was an exemplary exercise in democracy, with far fewer disruptions than expected and extraordinarily high turnout, rejectionists won the day.
Leaders of both Hamas and the ruling Fatah Party said Thursday that Hamas won an outright majority of parliamentary seats, though official results were not yet available. The Islamists now have a right to form the next Palestinian government, though it was not clear if they would choose to do so.
Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate, will remain head of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestine Liberation Organization, which is responsible for dealings with Israel.
But Hamas is sure to take a leading role in Palestinian decision making and the initial statements from Hamas leaders were not promising for peace. Mushir al-Masri, a senior Hamas official, said recognizing Israel and negotiating with it are “not on our agenda.”
However, al-Masri also suggested Hamas would be willing to join a coalition with Abbas and Fatah, and several Hamas officials said before the vote that they would not seek to tie Abbas’ hands in future dealings with Israel.
A day before the balloting, acting Israeli Prime Minister hinted that more unilateral moves, like last summer’s Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, could be in store if Israel feels there is no Palestinian leadership to talk to.
Israeli officials refused to comment Thursday on the Palestinian elections but there was a general feeling in Israel that peace prospects had suffered a significant blow.
The apparent Hamas victory “will weaken those in Israel or elsewhere who think we have a partner to negotiate with and it will strengthen those who don’t think so, which means it will strengthen the inclination to either go it alone with more unilateralism or do nothing,” said Israeli political analyst Yossi Alpher.
Olmert, who took over as acting prime minister after Sharon suffered a devastating stroke on Jan. 4, is the frontrunner in March 28 elections. But Hamas’ legislative showing could hurt the electoral prospects of Olmert’s centrist Kadima party, formed by Sharon in November to free his hands to pursue a peace deal with the Palestinians.
Whether peacemaking with Israel can go forward will now largely depend on whether Hamas joins Fatah in the government, and whether it will abandon the violent ideology that underpinned the dozens of suicide bombings it carried out against Israel before a ceasefire was declared a year ago.
If the elections pull the Islamic militants off the streets and into the corridors of power, shifting their focus from terror to governance, prospects for peace could actually be improved. But in his first policy speech this week since taking over from the ailing Ariel Sharon, Olmert said Israel isn’t taking any chances. He said the Jewish state will be “able to act in any circumstance, faced with any scenario, in order to preserve its security and political horizons.”
Olmert described Israel’s national interest as separating from the Palestinians in order to preserve a Jewish majority in Israel, and suggested more unilateral withdrawals were possible. Palestinians say this unilateralism threatens their statehood aspirations by allowing Israel to draw borders on its own. Before the vote, Hamas leaders said they had no desire to take over the reins of power because they didn’t want to have to talk to Israel, saying they preferred to limit themselves to service ministries such as health and education. But they’re now apparently in a position to demand any Cabinet positions they desire, and it’s not clear if they will seek higher profile posts. Both Israel and the United States have declared Hamas a terrorist group and refuse to deal with it. But a more nuanced policy now appears possible, with Israelis already debating whether it would be wiser to engage Hamas and a U.S. official refusing to rule out negotiations with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.
Alpher said misguided U.S. foreign policy is largely to blame for the political rise of Islamists in several places, including Iraq, Lebanon and now the Palestinian territories.
“President Bush’s democracy push is one of the primary factors that is responsible for what has happened because he has chosen to ignore the contradiction between electoral democracy which he’s sponsoring and allowing armed Islamic movements to run.” Ismail Haniyeh, who led the Hamas parliament list, said that “the American administration called for democracy and always they are playing the symphony of democracy,” and that the outcome of the vote must now be respected.