Hamas-Fatah: Looking for the Red Lines

By Yehudah Mirsky
Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Things can always get worse, and in the Middle East they usually will.  That was made depressingly clear once again with the April 27 announcement in Cairo of a reconciliation agreement between the rival Palestinian organizations of Fatah and Hamas.

This is very bad news for those governments, preeminent among them the United States, that have until now insisted on dealing only with Mahmoud Abbas and his Fatah party and have refused to recognize the intransigently rejectionist and terroristic Hamas. It is bad news for Israel's security forces, which at a minimum will now need to rethink their coordination with their Palestinian counterparts in what has been one of the more promising developments of the past few years. It is bad news for supporters of Israel's settlement policies in Judea and Samaria, where before long Hamas will become a significant official presence; for opponents of those policies who are nevertheless concerned with the fate of Israelis living there; and indeed for all who hope for a sustainable peace. It is bad news for Palestinians who would rather not live under an Islamist tyranny. And it is bad news for the prospect that the revolutions now coursing through the Arab world will foster liberal regimes and decent social and political orders.

Whether the bad news could have been averted by sounder action on the part of Jerusalem and Washington is an open question. The Netanyahu government has assuredly made its share of mistakes. But the Obama administration, with its fixation on the Israeli prime minister, has made one mistake after another, outflanking and embarrassing Abbas and then rewarding him for refusing to negotiate with Netanyahu, and in the end creating a situation in which the only country or group in the region that had cause to fear American wrath was Israel.

For whom is it good news? In the case of Abbas, who reportedly offered a reconciliation deal to Hamas back in October 2009, the agreement seems, on its face, a humiliation: a pact with mortal foes, brought about by his own inability to exercise convincing leadership at home. Externally, however, things look different. Abbas's campaign for a unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood, like his perversely stubborn refusal to negotiate with Israel, has already garnered sufficient international approval, whether tacit or explicit, to permit him to enter into Hamas's embrace without fear of overly negative consequences abroad.  To the contrary, acting as the "moderate" fig leaf to Hamas's revanchist intransigence may well ensure him the protection he needs to survive.

As for Hamas, although the weakening of its Syrian patron has been a problem, it has now won a commanding role within the Palestinian Authority (PA), solidified its relationship with the emerging regime in Egypt, and positioned itself to enter the good graces of the international community—all without having had to forswear an iota of its sworn determination to eliminate the state of Israel.  

Might a fair share of power moderate Hamas? The argument, a perennial one in such situations, is already being voiced by wistful observers.  To be sure, since assuming power in Gaza, Hamas has shown a decided aversion to losing it, and in order to maintain itself has recently been willing to curb some of the violence directed at Israel from its territory. But that is not moderation; it is realpolitik. As a well-traveled analyst once pointed out to me, Hamas, like Islamists elsewhere, has moved through recognizable stages: from ideological incubation, to power by ballot, to governance through bullets.  Indeed, the belief that power necessarily moderates illiberal groups is shallow, condescending, and self-defeating. Say what you will about Hamas, it has convictions. 

In this respect, the nature of the Palestinian regime in-the-making has already been clarified by the near-certain and almost casual disposal of Salam Fayyad, the one Palestinian political figure who up until yesterday was the West's (and Israel's) favorite potential partner in a meaningful peace agreement.  Fayyad's good-government strategy on the West Bank, stressing institutional development from the bottom up, has certainly been welcome. But the fact that this was taken by outside observers as an innovative stroke of genius rather than what the PA should have been doing all along was itself a disturbing sign of the fundamentally elitist nature of the "peace process" and of the acceptance of corrupt authoritarianism as the preferred form of Palestinian and Arab governance. 

During my term in the human-rights bureau of the Clinton administration, in the heyday of Oslo, the issuance of a "get out of jail free" card to Yasir Arafat and his secular Fatah dictatorship was seen as, among other things, a means of preventing the accession to power of the feared Islamic extremists of Hamas. It hasn't worked out that way.

Disastrous as Hamas's new lease on political life undoubtedly is, it does underline—if, at this late stage, underlining is still necessary—the real choices facing Israel and the West, and particularly so in this moment of unprecedented and roiling popular revolution in the Arab world.   It has long been obvious that the long-term interests of Israel, of the community of peaceful nations, and of the masses of Arabs themselves would best be served by the adoption of representative government and open societies—in a word, democracy.

Yet democratization is a patently messy process, and the meaning of the term itself needs to be clarified. What no one should be promoting or rewarding is the brand of Jacobinism touted with conviction by Hamas and now welcomed with half-hearted cynicism by Fatah, let alone the calling of elections, à la Gaza 2006, in the absence of a civil society that will guarantee that the first meaningful election is not the last.

Equally clear by now is that no one-size-fits-all formula exists for cultivating the growth of civil society and fostering governments accountable to their publics and respecting the rule of law. Every country has its own history and contours, and should be left to pursue its own path to democracy. What outsiders can do is keep a clear eye and attentive ear to local realities while trying to stave off the worst. 

Toward that end, there are certain elemental red lines that should mark the outer boundaries of what can be deemed legitimate progress on the part of democratizing societies. These include non-belligerence; a fundamental respect for human rights; the demonstrated will to implement the basics of republican government and the institutions of civil society; the acceptance of existing states' right to exist and the willingness to negotiate territorial and other disputes in good faith. All these are of a piece with the oft-stated requirements of the so-called Middle East Quartet (made up of the U.S., the European Union, the UN, and Russia): namely, commitments by both Fatah and Hamas to previous agreements, renunciation of terror and violence, and recognition of Israel.

If, in the emerging coalescence of Hamas and Fatah, the Quartet as well as individual Western and other governments were to insist on these red lines, they would at least show, to Israel and above all to themselves, what they stand for and what they will neither tolerate nor subsidize. The awful question raised by this latest development, and by the awaited response to it of the Western democracies, is whether any red lines remain at all.

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