Hamas, the Mussolini Test and Iran

Hamas, the Islamic Resistance movement, has won an overwhelming victory in the Palestinian legislative elections. The latest count is that they have captured 76 seats to 43 for Fatah out of the 132 seats in the legislature, or well over half.   The victory and the scope of the victory suggest that all the pre—election polling could have been done by John Zogby. It was that far off.

The conventional wisdom prior to the election was that Hamas would do very well, and achieve a strong minority position in the government, maybe capturing a third of the seats.  For this, they were expected to obtain a few ministries — probably to deal with social services, where their reputation for efficiency surpassed that of the Palestinian Authority.

This view also held that as a powerful insider in the government, Hamas would be too strong for the PA to enforce its one government, one armed force approach.  Hamas would therefore have been able to retain its terror ideology and weapons.  In fact Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had spoken of an alternative formula for disarming Hamas — co—opting Hamas' gunmen by bringing them into the PA security forces, thereby presumably satisfying the Roadmap requirement to disarm militant groups (or at least the largest one not part of Fatah). 

Hamas as a minority party was, of course, expected to pressure Abbas and the PA to harden their stance towards Israel and the U.S. Equally important, Hamas expected to  begin sharing in some of the financial goodies associated with Palestinian governance (courtesy of the EU and other donors' money).

While the EU, like Israel and the US, officially viewed Hamas as a terror organization, in the days prior to the election there were already murmurs among some European leaders and the likes of Jimmy Carter about the need to distinguish between a  political (more moderate) Hamas, and a militant (bad) Hamas. The implication was that a way could be found to keep the EU's money flowing even with Hamas part of the government, and thereby keep the PA alive and functioning, since Fatah would still be in charge.  

It is no secret to anyone that Palestinian society operates like a welfare client pretending to be a 'state,' living off the generosity of foreigners. There is a bit of farming in the territories, but the major entrepreneurial activity has been weapons manufacturing and smuggling.

Now the unthinkable has happened. Hamas has won. As a sports fan would say, they rule. And as to be expected, thousands of Middle East pundits are already weighing in.  Several questions are being addressed.

Will Hamas now moderate its views given its new role in government?  This is not a tough one to answer.  

If the role model is Hizbollah, the answer is no.  Radical Islamic parties are driven by their God and their holy book, and a Jihadist mindset. This does not really allow for a lot of compromise. Sure they may say some things to make it easier for the international community to keep writing checks (as former President Carter encouraged them to do).  Hamas' leadership is not dumb, even if they are ruthless murderers.  

Look to the founding DNA of the organization. Hamas is not on the scene today because it was needed to fill a social service vacuum (even if this may be a part of the reason for their electoral  success). Hamas, since its inception, has existed to end the occupation of Palestine. But unlike Yassar Arafat, who tried at times to finesse the meaning of his desire to destroy Israel by calling for an to end to Israel's occupation of  territories captured in the 67 war (and, wink, wink, from the rest of Israel later), Hamas was always more direct. Tel Aviv was occupied. The Galilee was occupied. Haifa was occupied. 

Hamas may now indicate a willingness to deal with Israel in an administrative fashion, as some Palestinian mayors who are Hamas already do, to ensure there is electricity, and water, and perhaps more importantly, to get tax revenues refunded.  And there is talk of continuing the ceasefire, which helps Hamas in two ways:  allowing them to consolidate their power without Israeli retaliation for any new attacks; and also signaling to the West the new leaf  Hamas may be turning over that ensures the financial spigot remains open from Europe.

But these feints towards moderation or recognition of Israel will not include the magic words the US got Arafat to whisper back in the late 80s (which were a lie of course) — that he recognized Israel's right to exist.  Anyone seeking guidance for whether Hamas may soon decide to recognize Israel's right to exist will find a roadmap for this answer in Iran's position on this issue. The new Iranian President has publicly stated that he believes Israel has a right to exist, but only in Austria and Germany.  If Hamas only wanted to 'end the occupation' of Gaza, and the West Bank, they would have signed up with the PA years back, and been invited to Camp David in the summer of 2000.

Hamas, seems as stunned as everybody else by its victory.  That may explain why they are trying to get Fatah and Abbas to 'partner' with them in a new government. This might give the Europeans and other donors, and perhaps even the US, enough wiggle room to continue to work with the new PA.  There is a long history of a lack of spine on the part of the Europeans in dealing with Palestinian terror groups. Despite some European nations (even Sweden!) making tough statements about relations with Hamas the day after the elections, over the next few weeks, it can be safely predicted that the hardline position against dealing with Hamas will soften.  Abbas may need to 'cover' for Hamas in the short term, but not forever. 

Hamas may also want cover from Abbas, because they do not have a clue how to run the madness that the Palestinian Authority is in charge of governing at the moment.

The Mussolini Test

Hamas, of course, has been a major contributor to that madness and the near total breakdown of authority. But now it needs an accomplishment, like Mussolini's supposed ability to get the trains running on time. Passing the Mussolini Test is much easier in the absence of armed opposition.

Hamas has  a reputation for enforcing discipline (at the point of many guns) in some  parts of Gaza. But now they will have to deal with disgruntled Fatah gunmen and officials, who cannot be thrilled to have lost their power base. 

A state of nature consisting of powerful tribes and local militias and gunmen is not a state or a state—in—waiting. So Hamas must fear that it will fail the Mussolini test. 

The Impact on Israeli Politics

A second major question concerns the impact a Hamas victory have on Israeli politics. Clearly, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not expecting that his new 'partner' in the peace process would be run by Hamas from top to bottom.  Israelis expected a strong showing by Hamas, which they felt would make a resumption of peace talks unlikely and provide them the ability to continue the unilateral program that had been initiated by Ariel Sharon: completion of the security barrier, and a de facto separation from the Palestinians, with tentative borders achieved by tactical withdrawals from Gaza and sections of the West Bank.

It can be expected that in the days to come, the Israeli left will argue that Israel failed to do enough to legitimize Abbas, thereby explaining Fatah's (and Abbas') defeat. And they will suggest that Israel needs to make peace feelers to Hamas, since Hamas represents the opportunity for the Palestinians' Nixon—in—China moment. In other words Abbas was too weak (just as Arafat was too unwilling) to risk making peace with Israel, since the terror groups would sabotage any such effort. But if Hamas is the government, and is itself willing to make peace, then nobody is left outside to kill the deal. 

This level of deluded thinking is hardwired on the Israeli left. The failure to achieve peace is always because Israel is not generous or forthcoming enough, and does not do enough to enable the Palestinians to make peace. The thinking has spread to some American Jews.

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner believe this garbage, since they have now proven with Munich that they  are leading practitioners of this kind of muddled thinking among the American Jewish left. Spielberg told Time Magazine he wishes both sides would sit down and talk until they were blue in the face. It would not surprise me if he believed that even with Hamas on the other side of the table, that talks could still be productive.

As for the upcoming Israeli elections, it seems that the Hamas victory should benefit the right and Bibi Netanyahu. Bibi has a lot of ground to make up in two months (44% for Kadimah, 21% for Labor, and 14% for Likud in a recent poll). But his rejection of the Gaza withdrawal and any additional concessions to the Palestinians looks more realistic with Hamas as the recipient of future Israeli land gifts.

Olmert, who has few security credentials, may find it easier to do nothing for awhile, and let Hamas and the PA implode. My guess, however, is that the friends of the Palestinians in years past will still be friends of the Palestinians in the future, and will see enough money coming in to keep the place running, if not really functioning. So at some point, pressure from Europe may begin again for Israel to make the next move, especially if Hamas hides behind Abbas, and talks mush for a few months. 

I don't think the Bush administration will cave in readily and try to work with Hamas. Given that 2006 is an election year, and  that the chance for achieving anything substantive between Israel and the Palestinians is now approximately zero, Bush is too smart to be willing to devote a lot more time and effort in trying to deal with the intransigent new face of the Palestinian leadership. 


The most important implication of the Hamas electoral victory may not be in terms of Israeli or Palestinian politics, but with regard to Iran. The recent unrestrained Iranian talk of wiping out Israel and their many years of playing the Europeans for fools with their nuclear program have changed the equation a bit in terms of how the West may choose to deal with their nuclear program. Waiting for the IAEA to recommend that the Security Council consider action against Iran may seem too tame, now that Hamas, another sworn enemy of Israel committed to its destruction, has become its direct neighbor.

I think this confluence of events will free Israel's hand if it chooses to move militarily against the Iranian nuclear program. There was growing talk of the military option even before Hamas' victory. But such talk will increase even more now, and if Israel moves against Iran, the reproach from the international community, given the new situation vis—a—vis Hamas, might be a bit more restrained than after the Osirak bombing in 1981, when Israel took out Saddam's nuclear weapons facility.

All in all, 2006 in unlikely to be a quiet year.

Richard Baehr is chief political correspondent of The American Thinker.