To be effective, Hamas must change

Aresounding win by Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections threatens to upend the Middle East peace process. The surprise victory confirms many of the more troubling speculations about the immediate impact of democracy in the region. But winning elections carries risk for radical groups, too: The day-to-day work of government is a new challenge and considerably more difficult than waging war. Hamas is better prepared than most organizations to take up that challenge, but it will be torn between its commitment to armed struggle against Israel and the need to better the lives of ordinary Palestinians. As a first step, it should renounce its militant wing and commit itself to peace with Israel.

Two sides exist in Palestinian politics: those committed to peace with Israel and those who are not, and those who demand clean government and those who profit from corruption. Hamas has not recognized Israel’s right to exist and yet it provides Palestinians with many social services that the Palestinian Authority should deliver, but does not. Both have made Hamas popular. Up to now that popularity had never been tested at the ballot box because Hamas had refused to join democratic politics in Palestine, arguing that such a step would legitimate a political process with Israel that it opposes.

Sensing that the tide had changed, Hamas agreed to run in last week’s election. While most observers predicted a strong showing by the group, none anticipated the result: a clear majority for Hamas. It won 76 seats in the 132-seat Parliament, giving it a majority and the right to form the next government. Fatah, which had ruled the Palestinian Parliament since it was formed — and dominated the Palestinian movement since its inception — claimed a mere 43 seats. Smaller parties won the remaining seats; four independents will back Hamas. By one measure it is a resounding mandate: Some 78 percent of the 1.3 million Palestinians cast ballots. In fact, however, Hamas polled less than a majority — the voting system, and a fractured opposition, helped the group win so convincingly.

Voters back Hamas for two reasons. First is the belief among most Palestinians that the group cares about them and will better their daily lives. The existing government has done an appalling job of delivering basic necessities — education, health care and other social services — and Hamas has filled the gaps. At the same time, the Palestinian Authority — dominated by Fatah — has developed a reputation for corruption.

Hamas also won plaudits for its strong stand in opposition to Israel. Many Palestinians support peace — three quarters of all Palestinians and even 60 percent of Hamas backers — but there has been no peace dividend for ordinary Palestinians. Hamas’ consistency — and its seeming ability to attract the attention of the Israeli government — helped win support.

But running a government is fundamentally different from filling in the gaps. Expectations will be radically altered. Hamas’ refusal to abandon the armed struggle with Israel means that it is considered a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union, and such groups cannot receive aid from either government. That aid amounts to hundreds of millions of dollars annually. In addition, Israel collects about $50 million each month in tax and customs receipts that it delivers to the Palestinian Authority; it is unclear if those payments will continue after Hamas’ win.

That money is badly needed. The Palestinian Authority is bankrupt, with a deficit of $69 million for January alone. Some 30 percent of Palestinians depend on government salaries; that includes nearly 60,000 members of the security forces. They are needed now more than ever, given rising tensions between Hamas and Fatah supporters, who are not prepared to give up the power they consider theirs; there have been daily clashes. At the same time, it is not clear if they will obey orders from a Hamas government — especially if that means cracking down on Fatah supporters. Some Hamas leaders have already said they will not be disarming militias; this will decrease tensions, but it also undermines any government’s legitimacy and rejects Israel’s key condition for continuing the peace process.

Hamas leaders have said that they are prepared to extend their yearlong truce with Israel, but they are not ready to give up the armed struggle. They claim that Arab states and Iran can compensate for aid that is lost. That is no solution.

Hamas must abandon the war and accept Israel’s right to exist. It will then be able to join the peace process as an equal partner and work to better the lives of all Palestinians. Supporters of the peace process must make it clear that there is no alternative. Unthinkable? The experience of the IRA and the PLO itself suggest otherwise.