As I am sure you have all heard already, Palestinian elections took place on Wednesday: Hamas won 74 seats, and Fatah won 45.
Despite global surprise at the results and the initial message from many governments that this result marks a death in the peace process, I think there is reason for optimism here.
Firstly, there has not been a peace process or a genuine attempt at negotiation for a while now — it is fair to say that real negotiation has not taken place since the 2001, when talks at Taba with Ehud Barak broke down. Consequently, it simply makes no sense to say that the peace process dies with this election.
Secondly, as Gideon Levy and Jewish Voice for Peace point out, the results indicate a democratic election, and moreover: one that took place peacefully. Nearly 80% of Palestinians voted. A fair election with such a high turnout in occupied territory is a success. It would be absurd and hypocritical for the Israeli and US governments, that pride themselves on their democracy, to refuse to recognise a democratically elected Palestinian leader. Guess what: the problem with a democracy is that sometimes, people you don’t like win.
But what does this support for Hamas indicate? Not a widespread support for terrorism, as Netanyahu would like to believe. Fatah has been unable to produce results for Palestinians. But in addition to its militant wing, Hamas also provides social services such as food and healthcare to Palestinians who do not support Hamas’s ideology. Hamas delivers, Fatah has not. Suicide bombings are despicable acts, but only Hamas has the ability to stop them. The current Israeli policy of force has not resulted in decreasing terrorist attacks — the only way to decrease them is to involve Hamas in the negotiations.
As Levy points out:
‘A peace deal with Hamas will be a lot more stable and viable than any agreement we sign with the PLO, if Hamas were to oppose it. Hamas can make concessions where Fatah would never dare. In any case, the Hamas that forms the government won’t be the Hamas that sends suicide bombers. The comparison to international terror organizations is also nonsense: Hamas is a movement fighting for limited national goals. If Israel were to reach out to the extremists among its enemies, then maybe it can reach a real agreement that would put an end to the tumor of the occupation and the curse of terror.
To that end, both sides, Israel and Hamas, must free themselves of the slogans of the past. Those who pose preconditions, like disarming Hamas, will miss the chance. It is impossible to expect that Hamas will disarm, just as it is impossible to expect that Israel would disarm. In Palestinian eyes, Hamas’ weapons are meant to fight the occupation, and, as is well-known, the occupation is not over. Practically, and indeed morally, the armed are armed if they are equipped with F-16s or Qassam launchers. If Israel were to commit to an end to killing Hamas operatives, there is reason to assume that Hamas would agree, at least for a while, to lay down its arms. The months of tahadiyeh proved that, even when Israel did not cease its own fire. In the coming months, the risk of terror attacks will be further reduced: A movement that wants to consolidate its regime and win international recognition will not be busy with terror. Nor will it allow Islamic Jihad to steal the show.
Now is the time to reach out to Hamas, which is desperate for international, and particularly American, recognition, and knows that such recognition goes through Israel. If Israel were to be friendly toward Hamas, it could benefit. Not that Hamas will all at once give up its extremist demands and its unrealistic dreams, but it will know, as some of its leaders have already declared, to set them aside if it serves their interests. Israel, which in any case did not speak with Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas, now has an opportunity for surprise. Instead of wasting more years with rejectionism, at the end of which we’ll sit down with Hamas in any case, let us reach out now to this extremist group, which was democratically elected. Israel has nothing to lose from such an approach. We’ve already seen the achievements of the hand that assassinates and demolishes, uproots and jails, we’ve already seen those policies fulfilled in front of our eyes: Hamas won the elections.’