Saturday, January 14, 2006

This is probably Mahmoud Abbas’ last chance. If Palestinian parliamentary elections set for the end of the month are postponed again, his strategy to bring Hamas and other militant groups into the political process will fail. Any chance of nurturing the rule of law and creating a competent, representative Palestinian government capable of negotiating with Israel will fail with him. His strategy, though risky, is a necessary step to building a democratic Palestinian state.

For more than a year, Mr. Abbas has argued giving Hamas a stake in the system will force its leaders to focus on political competition and governance rather than violence and terror. He seeks to ensure political outlets short of violence for a wide diversity of Palestinian voices. Hamas’ growing political participation is a positive development, and it should be harnessed to ensure its political integration strengthens rather than destroys Palestinian institutions.

Of course, even if elections are held, Mr. Abbas’ strategy could backfire. Hamas continues using violence as a tool, against both Israelis and other Palestinians, and political participation in national elections is no guarantee political activity will moderate the group.

Moving forward, the Palestinians, the Israelis and the outside world will need to continue to wean Hamas from violence. But postponing elections for a second time, as the PA leadership has hinted, will ensure a train wreck. Without the vote, Palestinian politics will remain mired in violence, lack a stable and legitimate government, and ensure that Palestinians remain excluded from any future political process with Israel. Having come this far with Mr. Abbas, the Bush administration should not stand by and watch this happen.

Without Hamas, there can be no parliamentary elections. They are a genuinely popular force that swept scores of local election races by advocating transparent and accountable government. Hamas has a record of good governance and efficiency where it operates, and it has demonstrated remarkable restraint in the face of Fatah’s provocations and Israeli military strikes. Despite having a hand in some attacks, it remains committed to an informal cease-fire.

The head of the Israeli military’s strategic planning division recently conceded Hamas would likely moderate its actions against Israel once elected into office. These days it expends far more energy on fighting corruption among Palestinians than fighting Israel.

Hamas can’t be wished away in the Palestinian community, but outside is a different story. In the last month, a chorus of voices has arisen arguing Hamas must be excluded from any future Palestinian government.

This was music to Ariel Sharon’s ears, because excluding Hamas means he won’t have a real negotiating partner, and therefore needn’t make politically difficult concessions.

Israeli government spokesmen have already set the stage for such an outcome, threatening a Hamas electoral victory would end the peace process. But the peace process has been comatose for nearly five years and negotiations over technical arrangements such as the safe passage have been a farce.

The irony of the Israeli government’s position lies in a recent poll by Hebrew University researcher Yaakov Shamir, who found 50 percent of a sample of Israelis surveyed said they would support negotiations with Hamas if it could lead to a negotiated agreement. The Israeli people are realizing the possibility of a Hamas role in any future agreement.

Without the option of political participation, Hamas is left with one choice: violence. Its continued exclusion from national decisionmaking will lead to an unavoidable clash with Fatah, which will devastate Palestinian society and end the democratic experiment Palestinians have pursued.

Hamas’ participation is important but also dangerous. There are certainly some within the movement who merely seek to use a democratic opening to control the system, never to relinquish that control. Even short of shutting down the system, a strong Hamas position in government could impose a stricter Islamic agenda on Palestinian society, isolate religious minorities, roll back women’s rights and escalate the conflict with Israel. There are no guarantees, near term, Hamas’ involvement will create more problems to be managed, not less.

Yet, experience with the Sunni insurgency in Iraq demonstrates the futility of excluding from politics genuinely popular voices within society and setting disarmament as a precondition for any political participation. Promoting pluralism and democracy requires including all voices within society, despite the risks. Mahmoud Abbas has decided to be serious about democratization in the Middle East — as has President Bush — and we should stand by him.

Smothering the unfolding democratic processes in Palestine not only undermines evolution of a more responsible and representative Palestinian government, it also erodes chances for a future agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. Mr. Abbas is taking the big risk here, and we should support him.

Haim Malka is a fellow with the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

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