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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 2006, page 71

Waging Peace

Hamas Victory Debated

(L-r) Rami Khouri, David Makovsky and Dr. Shibley Telhami (Staff Photo J. Najjab).

THE World Affairs Council of Washington, DC held a Feb. 2 panel discussion entitled “Political Earthquake: Hamas and the Palestinian Elections.” Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of Lebanon’s Daily Star, began by noting that Hamas got 44 percent—not the majority—of the Palestinian vote. The majority of the votes were divided among the 11 other parties. Those who voted for Hamas did so because they were seeking a more efficient government and an end to the corruption in the Fatah-led government, Khouri said. Domestic issues, not Israel, he argued, were the main focus of the election.

Khouri went on to say that Hamas’ position is evolving. “You can’t judge Hamas concerning its recognition of Israel without the end of the occupation,” he said. ”Hamas was created as a resistance movement, a resistance movement to Israeli occupation.” Describing Hamas as a grandchild of Sharon and Israel’s policies, Khouri reminded the audience that Hamas nevertheless has kept a year-long truce with Israel. In addition, its municipality officials in the West Bank have coordinated day-to-day operations smoothly with the Israeli military.

In Khouri’s opinion, Hamas should be engaged, not shunned. The party is now responsible for the welfare of the Palestinian people, he pointed out, and it must be allowed to meet their needs.

Hamas’ victory is a part of a regional pattern within the greater Middle East, Khouri continued, with similar trends occurring in Iraq, Egypt, Iran and Turkey. When given the opportunity to vote, he said, the people of the region vote for Islamists. Not only is it normal for the Islamists to win, Khouri maintained, but the Hamas government is the most legitimate in the Arab world. Saying he nearly fell out of his chair when he heard that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was surprised by the results of the Palestinian election, Khouri concluded, “Anyone who didn’t see this coming is either blind or incompetent.”

The next speaker was David Makovsky, senior fellow and director of the Washington Institute on Near East Policy’s Project on the Middle East Process. Not surprisingly for a representative of an organization begat by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Israel’s powerful Washington lobby, Makovsky presented the Israeli view on the Hamas win. Israel views Hamas as a terrorist group, he said, charging that Hamas does not believe in a two-state solution and glorifies killing. “They are expecting 70 virgins in paradise,” he alleged. “Israel has a problem with all of this.”

Predicting that the Hamas win will affect the upcoming Israeli election, Makovsky opined that “The Hamas victory will galvanize the Israelis.” The Israeli left will call for total withdrawal from the occupied territories, he said, while the right will blame the Hamas victory on Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Likud leader Binyamin Netanyahu, hoping for a repeat of the 1996 Israeli elections, will present himself as the only candidate who can be tough against the new Palestinian leadership. He even has a new slogan, Makovsky said: “Strong against Hamas.”

The evening’s last speaker was Dr. Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. In contrast to Khouri, Telhami maintained that “Everyone is shocked by the win,” calling it “a stunning outcome.” In the past, he noted, one could not distinguish between the Palestinian Authority and Fatah party. But “after 40 years in office,” Telhami said, “they are out.”

Even though Hamas rose to power due to nationalism, not religious convention, he said, its power is sustained in Islam. Palestine is now center stage for the rest of the Arab world, Telhami added, and today Hamas is the face of Palestine. But Hamas now must deal with practical considerations, he pointed out, and will have to coexist with others within the government, including the 70,000 Fatah-dominated security forces. Telhami predicted that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will end up controlling foreign policy, while the Hamas leadership will handle domestic issues.

Whether Hamas succeeds or not, in Telhami’s opinion the true losers in the end will be the Arab governments. He believes the United States will cut aid to the Palestinian government and fears a nightmare will result. Future elections in the Arab world will be between the government and Islamists, he said, warning that third-party candidates will not have a chance. Telhami concluded with the prediction that, in the end, the Islamists will win.

Jamal Najjab