Two election results pose deep dilemmas for democrats who support reconciliation in the Middle East. In recent municipal ballots in the Gaza Strip, the Islamic militant group Hamas made a surprisingly strong showing. Soon after, a coalition of parties led by Hezbollah swept elections in southern Lebanon. In both cases, voters backed groups that reject relations with Israel.
In elections held in early May, Hamas won nearly one-third of the 84 municipal councils in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, several in larger towns. Its chief rival, Fatah, claimed majorities in 50 councils. Subsequently, a court canceled results in several districts after finding voting irregularities. Nearly 40 percent of the Gaza Strip’s 74,000 voters will have to cast ballots again. Despite complaints, Hamas’ leaders have said they will support the court decision.
That is not surprising. The real prize is parliamentary elections that were scheduled to be held in mid-July, but have been postponed for “technical reasons.” Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas is fighting the old guard in his own party, Fatah, and Hamas over the format of the ballots. Mr. Abbas wants national lists that will allow the party to project a different image; the opposition prefers smaller, district-size lists that better allow them to bring their own influence to bear. Mr. Abbas has compromised with a proposal that will allow half the seats to represent districts and half to come from national lists. Sensing that it will do well in the vote, Hamas has agreed to field candidates in the ballot for the first time.
Mr. Abbas has also agreed to form a “national high commission” that would include Hamas members to consult with the Palestinian leadership over the Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, scheduled for mid-August. Taking a place on the commission will allow Hamas to claim a bigger role in helping engineer the Israeli withdrawal, as well as ensure that it gets a share of the assets that Israel leaves behind when it pulls out.
In both cases, Mr. Abbas has dealt with Hamas, giving the group more legitimacy and establishing it as a credible player in Palestinian politics. This has infuriated many Israelis, and supporters in the West, who consider Hamas a terrorist organization: It has been responsible for a number of attacks on Israeli targets. Nevertheless, Mr. Abbas has preferred to deal with the group through negotiation and compromise. He can claim that this approach has produced the longest ceasefire of the 4 1/2-year-long intifada.
Mr. Abbas would say that it has produced compromise in Hamas — which now says it can coexist with Israel in the medium-term — and nudged it away from violence and into politics. The only flaw in that theory is the insistence by Hamas’ leaders that they will never give up their arms or the right to engage in “legitimate resistance” against Israel.
Elections in southern Lebanon produced equally disconcerting results. In that ballot, a Hezbollah-led coalition won all 23 seats, providing a seeming mandate for the party and its strategy of “resistance” against Israel. Hezbollah has taken credit for forcing Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000 (a tactic that Hamas will try to emulate in Gaza). Israelis and many Westerners consider Hezbollah a terrorist organization; the group’s claims to have launched more than 10,000 missiles against Israel would suggest the label is accurate.
As long as it is considered a terrorist organization, Hezbollah remains outside the range of acceptable political interlocutors; the United States and Israel continue to refuse to deal with the group. European countries have begun low-level contacts with the group, in an attempt to bring it into the political process. They insist that Hezbollah is a political force in Lebanon and therefore cannot be ignored. The election proves that is correct, but there must be a line drawn between terrorist organizations and political parties.
These victories by the militants make plain the dilemma of those who call for more democracy in the Middle East. All too often, “the street” is far more militant than the political elite; this is certainly the case in countries such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia. Empowering ordinary citizens is almost certain to guarantee greater conflict.
That is not inevitable, however. There is another dimension to this debate, at least in the case of Hamas. Much of its popular appeal comes from its ability to deliver ordinary services — repairing roads and providing health care — to voters. Much of the old Palestinian power structure, including Fatah, is considered corrupt and inefficient. When their lives are miserable — when they have nothing to lose — they will back extremists. In that light, democracy could work: Accountability would force leaders to focus on improving the lives of voters. War is rarely the best way to do that.
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