The landslide election victory of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement, is likely to further destabilize the already anarchic Palestinian territories, heighten tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, and kill the comatose peace process.
Hamas’s electoral triumph is also a major setback for U.S. Middle East policy, which sought to encourage the evolution of a peaceful and stable Middle East through the promotion of democracy as an antidote to terrorism and unending war. Hamas exploited the popular backlash against the corrupt authoritarian rule of Yasser Arafat’s Fatah movement to legitimize its own anti-democratic agenda.
The Bush Administration should challenge Hamas to immediately end its support of terrorism, dissolve its militia, and amend its charter, which calls for Israel’s destruction. If Hamas refuses, the United States must deny recognition of the new government, halt foreign aid to it, and denounce it as an illegitimate terrorist regime.
According to preliminary results, Hamas won 76 seats in the 132-seat Palestine Legislative Council, eclipsing Fatah, which won only 43. Hamas could form the next Palestinian government by itself or build a ruling coalition with Fatah or other minority parties.
The elections were a referendum on Fatah’s longstanding domination of Palestinian politics. Many Palestinians were appalled by the corruption, cronyism, and ineffectiveness of Fatah, which never transformed itself from an authoritarian revolutionary movement into a responsible governing party. Hamas picked up a sizable anti-Fatah protest vote, in addition to the votes of the estimated 30 to 35 percent of Palestinians who support its radical Islamic agenda.
Although foreign policy played little role in the political campaign, it will play a huge role in determining the future of Palestinians. Hamas not only rejects peace with Israel, but it rejects Israel’s continued existence. It is dedicated to destroying the Jewish state and creating a radical Islamic state in its place. Its ideology of hatred, extensive use of terrorism, and commitment to destroy a neighboring democracy make Hamas unfit to qualify as a democratic party, let alone a democratic government.
Building a genuine democracy requires much more than just elections. It also requires a supportive civil society, respect for the rule of law, and protection of minority rights against the tyranny of the majority. The Bush Administration should be clear that popularity alone does not confer legitimacy on the winner of an election. In addition to winning at the ballot box, a political party must pass a violence test and a values test before it can be considered truly "democratic." Hamas flunks both.
A truly democratic party must reject violence, intimidation, and terrorism, not only against its own people but also against other nations, even if they are historic enemies. There should be no tolerance for the fiction of distinguishing between a "political wing" and a "military wing" of a party. Militias and terrorist organizations must be dismantled before a party is accepted as a suitable participant in elections. Opening the door to political movements such as Hamas to compete in elections without first dropping their reliance on violence will only allow them to subvert democracy and establish a stranglehold on political power.
Political parties must also pass a values test: they must not advocate racial or religious discrimination. Many European states ban neo-Nazi and other racist political parties. Parties such as Hamas that demonize other religions should also be prohibited from participating in elections and ostracized if they manage to win. The Bush Administration should have made this clear before the vote.
Now that Hamas has been elected to power, the Bush Administration should insist that it dissolve its militia, disavow terrorism, and amend its charter to drop its goal of destroying Israel. These are necessities if it expects to be treated as a responsible democratic government. If Hamas refuses, then Washington should refuse to recognize the new government, halt all aid to the Palestinians, and press its allies to follow suit. The United States should not legitimize and empower a terrorist government that is committed to the destruction of a democratic ally.