The election to the Legislative Council (Palestinian parliament) took place on January 15, which resulted in a supposedly surprising outcome – in a victory of the Change and Reform Party, which is in fact a political party representing the Hamas radical movement. The latter, together with its four cooperating independent MPs, won 80 seats out of 132 in the legislature of Palestinian National Authority. Yet according to a few observers, the victory of Hamas (or, better to say, the loss of the governing movement Fatah) could have been expected. On the contrary, it is impossible to predict the change of the situation in the unsettled region, what government will be formed, how will the Palestinian opposition or The Diaspora (Al-Shatat) react, or how will Israel (the EU, the USA) react to the new government. However, there are a few variants of the post-electoral course in the region.
Hamas and the Election
First we have to mention that although the election took place under the Israeli occupation, it passed off without serious incidents and its course meets all the attributes of a democratic election (secrecy, universality, equality and directness of the vote). The attendance reached 77.5% which is more than in some first world democratic states. The only questionable imperfection is the non-attendance of the Palestinians in exile, who – according to the election law – do not have the right to vote, although their number reaches more than five million. Hamas has taken part in the elections for the first time since the establishment of the Palestinian National Authority. The first elections that took place in 1996 as an actual fulfillment of the Oslo Accords (1993) between Israel and the representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, was in fact ignored by the Islamist movements Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, since they considered it – as well as the Accord as such – a “Sionist conspiracy”. Thus the unequivocal winner was the secular movement Fatah, which was in power up to these days.
The Hamas defended the decision to take part in this year`s elections by means of change of the election system in 2005, which is not identical with the one that was an outcome of the Accord in 1993, and thus the Accord is actually dead. Islamic Jihad, which again ignored the elections, rejects the justification and considers the act of Hamas a declaration of support to the Accord and a recognition of Israel. Thus the motives of Hamas are probably a question of winning the power and entering the political being, which is a legitimate step of every political movement. Ironically, this step of Hamas we can only approve. The electoral competition is more legitimate if it is participated by an influential movement with a great support of the society, which is thus brought into the election process. Thereby the outcome of the election is decided by in fact almost the whole Palestinian nation in the occupied territories. At the same time the competition of the parties improved, which has the effect of a more responsible approach of the party to its voters who fear a stronger alternative. It was actually this reason that determined the outcome of this election. The discontent of voters with the governing Fatah (and with the President of the Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas) showed itself to be the decisive factor of the Hamas victory.
The Reasons of the Hamas Victory
There are many explanations why Hamas won the election, but almost all of them are relating to refusal of the governing movement Fatah by the Palestinian voters. An exception is a well-grounded and unchallenged statement of the president of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information, George Baskin concernig the institutional factor. Baskin claims that the new election system combining majority and proportional system is responsible for the victory of Hamas. Indeed, in the proportional election, which is the most precise one to reflect the preferencies of the voters, the Fatah movement gained only 43% and the rest was won by the secular opposition, which payed only for its disunity. In the majority election (a seat is won by a candidate with the highest number of votes) Hamas caught up when its candidates won 68% of the seats, and that guaranteed their majority in the parliament. This fact is important not only because of the manifestation, that surely Hamas is not voted by more than a half of the Palestinians, but also because the Hamas candidates are for Palestinians more accaptable than the Fatah ones.
And this is the second reason of the Hamas victory in the fight for the parliament. The election of the radical candidates from Hamas environment was largely a reaction to corrupted government representatives from the Fatah movement. It was the corruption of the governing party and the incompetent leading of the party that the President of the Palestinian Research Center Shikaki considers to be decisive. His opinion is justified by the exit polls outcome (public opinion survey based on the voters leaving election rooms). According to two thirds of the enquired, their priorities were transparency and safety, only then follow economic priorities and the peace process (only 15%).
Hamas in particular is significant with its discipline and incorruptibility (they did not have any opportunity for corruptible behavior), which according to the survey in question attracted the voters. Besides, Hamas is characterized not only by the militant Al-Kasam Brigade (a political group led by Khaled Mashal), but also by social and religious groups, which help poor and ill Palestinians on a daily basis. They build hospitals, help children and support culture. Another reason to prefer them instead of politicians representing the passive and corruptible Palestinian Authority. Other explanations are favoured especially among the opposers of the conciliatory policy of Mahmoud Abbas towards Israel. They say that theHamas victory proves the failure of the Oslo Accords, extremely conciliatory policy of the PNA towards Israel or insufficient pressure on the protection of Palestinian rights. Surely the persecution of the political opposers by the police controled by Fatah was neither a helping hand. It was Abbas who initially possessed a great support of the Palestinians after he won the presidential election, since after the positive proclaims of Israel there was a hope for a solution to a long-term conflict. The atmosphere today is different – Abbas is an embodiment of the unsuccessful peace policy of the Palestinian representatives. As the main representative of the Fatah, he surely harmed his own party as well. According to the peace activist Haddad, the governmental movement Fatah was unsuccessful in solving the problem of the return of Palestinian refugees, the question of Jerusalem or the matter of the unity of the Palestinian nation. Despite the fact that Fatah as a representative of the PNA is the biggest employer, that it has international legitimacy and that according to the USA it is not a terrorist group, the voters have punished it for all the failures mentioned.
More reproach is directed to the course of the peace process as such, where the Palestinians are said to feel inferior. They do not like the fact that it is them who has to prove that they are not terrorists, when at the same time violent actions of Israel hide behind names such as self-defence or security. They are not satisfied with the unilateralism of Israel in the matter of evacuation or defining borders. After all, they do not identify with the fact that the Palestinian police, strongly influenced by Fatah, together with the Israeli Secret Service arrests and imprisons the representatives of Islamic Jihad, the PFLP or Hamas – allegedly using the money subsidized to the PNA by the USA. In that manner it destroys the unity of Palestinian nation.
According to the supporters of this version, these reasons lead the Palestinians to preference of a resistance movement (i. e. Hamas) instead of a peace one. It is worth mentioning that Shikaki opposed this version with a statement, that the surveys proved that 60% of the Hamas voters do not agree with its anti-peace policy (against recognition of Israel, against negotiations), which could mean that if the peace process had been the only issue of the election, Fatah would have won. Ironically, despite that Hamas is an Islamic movement, the religion does not appear among often mentioned reasons of the success in the election, although the religion is beyond any doubt used as a justification of the violent policy of the movement or used to mobilize its radical followers. Although we can assume that Hamas as an alternative to the secularist parties could have won some votes of radical Muslims, yet it could not have been enough for the electoral victory. Hamas itself refuses the statement that Palestine has become a second Afghanistan under the government of Taliban. As one of the election coordiantor declared, “freedom of the people is in the religion they choose”. According to the declarations of the movement, even establishment of a caliphate is not the issue of the day, although this request is in the core of the programs of Islamist movements.
The above mentioned explanations of the Hamas victory often come up in relation to the inclination towards either Hamas or Fatah movement. Supporters of Hamas point out demerits of the peace process and they offer their own, more radical solutions. On the contrary, other analysts percept the defeat of Fatah rather as a consequence of corruption and poor leadership in the PNA, i.e. its unability to guarantee stability and security. There is no such thing as the only right explanation, as each of them includes a piece of truth multiplied by the already-mentioned altered election system, which became less proportional and thereby it enables a minority (Hamas) to win the majority of the seats.
What Will Follow?
Further course of development in the Middle East will depend primarily on the ability of Hamas to hold political dialogue with their opponents in opinion. The same is to be expected from Israel or the Quartet (USA, EU, UN, Russia).
Hamas vs. Other Palestinian Groups
As for the occupied territory, Hamas will most probably focus on the release of prisoners arrested by the armed forces of the PA led by Fatah. Already in the preelection campaigne Hamas criticised arresting of the radical opponents of Israel, in their opinion controlled by Israel and the West. Moreover, Hamas calls for unity of the Palestinian nation, therefore they find any persecution of compatriots unacceptable. However, it might not be so simple. The political system in Palestine is set in a manner that Abbas, as the PA President, is the appointing authority in the matter of the most important PA security element. Clashes between armed forces of the PA and Hamas would be the worst option, which was implied by the placement of the PA elements controlled by Fatah into the parliament. The crucial point will be also the quality of cooperation between the Prime Minister from Hamas and Abbas from Fatah, or the relation between the two parties as such.
We have to remember that the Palestinian Legislative Council is not a strong authority. The ministers are appointed by the president, although the approval of the parliament is necessary. The president has important executive powers and so he will be a certain counterpoise to Hamas movement. It seems that there is no need to fear a situation as in Iran where the Islamist President Ahma has much greater influence on course of the country than the Palestinian Prime Minister. However, the Israeli attitude is of great importance, as it can either strenghten, or weaken the Hamas movement.
Hamas vs. Israel
Israel is not interested in negotiations with Hamas, as in their opinion it is a terrorist movement and its aim is to destroy Israel. The resolution not to negotiate with Israel was vindicated by Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The resolute position of Israel is not so clear at first sight – the election was democratic and the people have voluntarily chosen Hamas. According to some analysts, disputing Hamas disputes also the very will of Palestinians and democracy as such, which is contradictory to the declarations of Israel and the USA concerning the necessity of democratization of the Near East. We can expect certain concession of Israeli government on the condition that Hamas will meet certain principal conditions (giving up violence, recognition of Israel, fulfilling peace treaties) and therefore the election winner can be defeated eventually.
According to Palestinian analyst Shragu Elam, the position of Hamas will be paradoxically weaken by its election. If Hamas wants to perform their executive powers and negotiate with Israel effectively, it will have to give up violence, recognize Israel and thus moderate its policy and make further concessions to Israeli demands and to demands of international association. If it does not meet these conditions and persists in armed resistance, it might not win any international support, the peace process will not proceed and the security, stability and economic situation in Palestine will not improve either. In both cases Hamas will partially lose support, either among radical opponents of the Oslo Accords and Israel and the supporters of armed resistance, or among dissatisfied Palestinians seeking for peace, stability and economic prosperity.
Moreover, it is the obstinacy of Hamas that can lead to approval of the Israeli unilateralism from the side of international association. At present Israeli government is criticised for taking unilateral actions without consulting Palesinian leaders (displacing military, defining borders). If Hamas movement does not prove to be a serious partner for cooperation with Israel, the unilateralism will become an Israeli principle of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that will be a loss again on the side of Palestinians.
Finance is a factor of importance as well. Palestine, unlike Iran, does not possess mineral resources that would allow them to make their own politics without any attention to the reactions of donors.
Israel is aware of this fact, and therefore it stopped paying taxes for the PA immediately after the release of the election outcome. In the nearest future it will pay according to the behaviour of the governing party. Money is a strong argument especially in case of Palestine decimated after the conflict, where the daily income of a great part of the inhabitants is less than one dollar. The gamble of Hamas with this money might not pay off for them, and that is what forces them either to moderation, or to a search for other resources.
Hamas will have the same problem with the Quartet, which also has financial
resources for the PA and thus it also has a say in the PA policy.
Hamas vs. the Quartet
The Quartet gave a joint declaration, where it states that Hamas has to give up violence, recognize Israel and accept all peace treaties related to the Near East (i.e. also the Oslo Accords, which Hamas does not accept). In the matter of their attitude towars Hamas, the Quartet is not united despite the joint declaration. The UN has officially expressed only contentment with the course of the election, although Annan – according to some observers – expressed “great wonderment” over the outcome. For instance, the Russian President does not consider it a problem to negotiate with Hamas, since according to him Russia does not perceive Hamas movement as a terrorist group. Putin even invited Hamas representatives to pay an oficcial visit. At the same time the Russian President expressed the effort to convince Hamas that it is necessary to recognize Israel, which is a problem for Hamas according to its political charter. The Russian step has various interpretations, but the efforts to negotiate with Hamas, as well as with Islamist Iran, indicate that Russia tries to achieve stronger position in the Near and Middle-East region. Moreover, after the defeat of Saddam Hussein, the U.S. position in this region becomes stronger, which is unacceptable for Russia from the geopolitical point of view. Therefore relatively good relations with Iran or Hamas could be helpful.
On the contrary, the EU and the USA (important donors of the PA – approx. 1 billion dollars a year) are not of the same opinion. Unlike Russia, the USA has officially regarded Hamas a terrorist organization for seven years. The EU put Hamas on the black list only in 2003 under the pressure of the USA and Israel. Their identical attitude is clear: Hamas has to give up violence, disarm and recognize the Israeli state, otherwise they will stop the aid. However, they do not cast doubts upon the election results, since – like Israel – they cannot afford to contest free choice of the Palestinians in a democratic election.
The Hamas victory can bring positive consequences for them as well. For instance, the EU has been criticising incompetent management and corruption in the PA, besides the EU together with the USA tried to bring the radical Islamic groups into the political process in order to increase its legitimacy. The government of Hamas can dispose of both defects, although there is also a certain risk that the aid will be misused for further arming of the militant wing of Hamas.
Yet the actual policy of the EU is questionable because it is influenced by individual member states, which can cause disunity in case of further progression towards Hamas. As it was stated by Javier Solana, who is responsible for the foreign policy, the EU has to analyse the situation in detail before it adopts a clear attitude. So far the USA and the EU are on top of the situation – they have money. The situation could be complicated if Hamas decided to find a different wealthy donor, and the whole world can imagine rich Iran in that place.
Hamas vs. Iran and the League of the Arab States
The alliance of Iran and Hamas was indicated also by Bill Samii in his analysis. We can base the supposition on two recent events. A Shiit spiritual leader from Lebanon called on to respect the election in Palestine, and at the same time the Shiit followers of Hamas celebrated its victory in the streets of Lebanese towns. An interesting fact is, that Iran already has some experience in supporting radical movements in the Near East and in Lebanon, and therefore the Shiit movement Hezbollah, fighting against Israel, can allways fall back on logistic and financial aid from Iranian government. According to Matthew Levitt, a specialist on terrorism financing, Iran sponsored Hamas already in the past, anually by 10 to 20 million dollars. The second important fact are excellent relations of Iran to the Palestinian election winner. According to Hamas, the Iranian President Ahmadinejad telephoned Mashal to congratulate to the election victory in person. Thus the financial support can be expected, although the cut of almost 1 billion dollars a year from the USA and the EU would be difficult to make up for.
Besides religious reasons, Iran has also political reasons for supporting Hamas. This way it can establish its deputy in and unsettled region and thus confront Israel and the USA, which both have strong positions in the region. From geopolitical point of view, supporting Hamas is of the same importance as was (is) supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Hamas vs. the Leage of Arab States
The whole situation concerning the course after the Palestinian election might be saved by the Arab League. Although Iran does not belong to the League (it is not an Arab country), it will have influence over Hamas. As Secretary-General of the Arab League Amr Moussa stated, all Arab states agreed to recognize Israel and he expects that from Hamas as well. On the other hand they also emphasize the Israeli obligation to withdraw from occupied regions demanded by the UN SC Resolutions 242 and 338.
Hamas can be put under pressure also by individual Arab countries, which are either under political influence of the USA (Egypt, Jordan), or because of fear of home Islamist groups. Their priority will be moderation of Hamas as well, which will solve the situation of their home policy – restraining their own Islamist groups. The course of development in Palestine is influenced by various factors and their combinations can end up in various outcomes. It is necessary to wait for a number of important moments that will allow to evaluate the anticipated development in the region.
Significant will be the fact whether Hamas establishes the government by themselves, or whether a national coalition with Fatah is established. It is also necessary to wait for the cohabitation of the Fatah President and the Hamas Prime Minister. The change of the movement policy is also important, it is necessary to go from radical rhetoric to moderate steps essential for peace solution. From the Israeli point of view, the cards can be shuffled by the outcome of the elections to be held this year. It is questionable whether the newly elected Prime Minister will maintain the unilateral habits of his predecessors, or whether he will try to negotiate, even with Hamas.
We have to wait for the crisis with Iran to be resolved, since Iran as a potential donor of the PA can largely influence the behaviour of Hamas, as well as the situation in the unsettled region. Similarly the attitude of the Europian twenty five, the USA and Russia can either strenghten or weaken the whole peace process. More exact conclusions, which will be of global consequence, can be drawn in the next months.