End of the Road Map


By Robert Dreyfuss *

January 27, 2006

Hamas' shocking, but not surprising, victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections on Jan. 25 is a disaster—for the peace process, and for the Palestinians. It is indeed a shock. But it is not a surprise, because the strength of political Islam in the region is growing nearly everywhere—from Iraq, whose government is controlled by three Shiite fundamentalist parties, to Egypt, where the fanatical Muslim Brotherhood made huge gains in elections in 2005—and because Hamas was able to capitalize on anger, bitterness and frustration among Palestinians disenchanted with the Palestine Liberation Organization, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority (PA).

But it's a disaster, above all, for the Palestinians themselves. It's the equivalent of an election in the United States in which voters went to the polls and elected the Rev. Pat Robertson president. If the Christian right is bad for America—not because they are terrorists, but because their anti-abortion, anti-evolution, anti-gay, prayer-in-schools philosophy is so abhorrent—then the Islamic right is bad for Palestine. This is not because Hamas is a terrorist movement, which it is. The Islamic right is bad because its slogans—"the Koran is our constitution" and "Islam is the solution"—are incompatible with a complex, 21st-century society, and because Hamas' vision for society is a benighted, medieval one.

The most obvious effect of the Hamas win will be its aftershock in Israel, which goes to the polls in March. The victory by Hamas will strengthen the Israeli far-right, weaken pro-peace centrists and put the Israeli left and the Labour Party on the defensive. The most likely beneficiary in Israel will be Richard Perle's favorite Israeli politician, Bibi Netanyahu, whose Likud bloc is likely to gain. The Ariel Sharon-founded centrist bloc will be pulled to the right, and most Israeli voters will react to Hamas' victory by seeking the protection of strongmen, not peaceniks. So polarization will intensify dramatically between Israel and the PA. The consequences are incalculable. And they will be regional, not confined to Palestine and Israel. Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and beyond will feel the effects of the Hamas earthquake.

Does the Hamas vote indicate that Palestinian voters have suddenly become religious extremists? Certainly not. Like the Christian right in the United States, the Islamic right in Palestine has a core support bloc—but it is far smaller than the 58 percent of the total seats secured by Hamas. Many Palestinians voted for Hamas because they believed that the PA had failed to deliver social and economic benefits or to make progress toward peace. Or because Fatah, since the death of Yasser Arafat, seemed divided and rudderless. Or because the Palestinian old guard was hopelessly corrupt. Whatever the reasons, however, the vote for Hamas empowers a dangerously radical movement.

It's important to note, as detailed in my book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam , that Israel has only itself to blame for the emergence of Hamas. After 1967, when Israel occupied Gaza and the West Bank, the Israeli authorities encouraged the growth of Islamism as a counter to Palestinian nationalism and the PLO. In 1967, Israel freed Ahmed Yassin, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who founded Hamas in 1978-88, and they encouraged the Islamic right and the Brotherhood to take control of mosques and student groups. In 1977-78, the Israeli government of Menachem Begin's Likud officially licensed Yassin's Islamic movement and gave it official Israeli blessing. Throughout the 1980s, the Muslim Brotherhood fought pitched battles against the PLO. In an interview not long before he died, Arafat said: "Hamas is a creature of Israel," and he quoted slain Israeli Prime Minister Rabin as having told him that Israeli support for Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood was a "fatal error." Several U.S. diplomats and intelligence officials told me about Israel's support for Yassin and the Brotherhood, and Chas Freeman, the former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, told me bluntly: "Israel started Hamas."

In fact, the Muslim Brotherhood had always been an enemy of Arab and Palestinian nationalism. Twice, Brotherhood assassins tried to kill Egypt's President Nasser, and in 1970 the Muslim Brotherhood sided with King Hussein in the civil war against the PLO that came to be known as "Black September."

For the Bush administration, Hamas' victory ought to be a cautionary tale about the dangers inherent in a too-rapid push for democracy. Already, the effects of instant, U.S.-imposed democracy in Iraq are daunting. True democracy requires a set of political institutions, nongovernmental organizations, media and universities dedicated toward supporting a democratic form of government. Overnight elections can't do the trick. The authoritarian military regimes in Egypt and Syria and the monarchies in Jordan and Saudi Arabia could easily fall to Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamist forces if pushed too far, too fast toward elections.

Having started Hamas in the first place, various Israeli governments since the late 1980s, through two intifadas, have been struggling to cope with their deformed offspring. Yet through the dozens of suicide bombings targeting civilians perpetrated by Hamas, and through all the Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders (including Yassin), both Israeli and Palestinian extremists and revanchist demagogues have fed off each other. Each now strengthens the other.

In the aftermath of the election, many voices have been raised suggesting that Hamas may opt for a pragmatic policy rather than seek confrontation with Israel—if, indeed, Israel gives it that chance. There is no guarantee that Hamas will do so. Its leaders are as fanatical and as dangerously unpredictable as their counterparts on the Israeli far right. Although it is true that the PLO under Arafat migrated from demanding the elimination of Israel to accepting a two-state solution, the PLO was ultimately a nationalist group for whom a state, even a smaller one on the West Bank and in Gaza, satisfied one of its principal political goals. But Hamas has never had nationalist goals. Its goal is not the creation of Palestine, but the establishment of a caliphate and the restoration of pure, 7th-century Islam throughout the Muslim world. Its struggle with Israel is only a stepping stone toward that larger goal.

President Bush must tread carefully. After initial bluster about never meeting or dealing with Hamas, both the United States and Israel will have to deal with the unsettling new reality on the ground. Just as most Arabs eventually came to grips with the notion that Israel exists, the Israelis (and the United States) have no choice other than to recognize the reality of Hamas. It is in the American interests, the Israeli interest, and the interests of the Palestinians themselves that Hamas be weakened. Yet that can only come not via confrontation but by lowering the political temperature and choosing dialogue over war.

About the Author: Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam (Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books, 2005). Dreyfuss is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone.

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