Hamas literally exploded onto the public consciousness in March 1996 with a series of bus bombings that slaughtered nearly 60 Israelis. Today, it is eager to participate in the democratic process, and Israel is threatening to put every possible obstacle in its path.
What a spoilsport!
At first glance, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's remarks last week in New York - that unless the group disarms and revokes its 1988 charter calling for the obliteration of the Jewish state, Israel will not allow Hamas to run in the Jan. 25 Palestinian legislative elections - sound churlish.
As he said, "We will make every effort not to help. I don't think [the Palestinians] can hold elections without our assistance, and we will make all possible efforts not to aid them if Hamas participates."
Israeli logistical support for the election is a must. For elections to come off, Israel would need to lift security checkpoints throughout Judea and Samaria, as well as accommodate voting in metropolitan Jerusalem.
The Palestinian Authority's Saeb Erekat wants Israel to keep its nose out of Palestinian internal affairs, claiming that "our election will be a turning point toward political pluralism and toward maintaining law and order."
So why the Israeli hard-line? Why is even Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres uncompromising on this issue? Because unless Hamas' role is predicated from the get-go on a changed mission statement, its participation in elections will do nothing to enhance pluralism and civil society, and everything to bolster precisely the kind of Islamist maximalist that threatens Israel and the Palestinians themselves.
For its part, Hamas has called Sharon's warning "insolent" and "undemocratic," and predicted that excluding the group will only make it more popular. Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar is quite indignant. "If [Sharon] wants to play the game of imposing conditions, then we have 1,000 conditions we would want Israel to meet."
Jerusalem has reason to despise the notion that the bomb can go with the ballot. While it may be true that far from ostracizing the terror group, the dysfunctional Palestinian body-politic places violent extremists on a pedestal, that's no reason for Israel to give it a boost.
In the final analysis, the issue is whether Hamas participation helps or hinders democracy-building.
A clear policy guideline comes from Afghanistan, which held its own elections yesterday. There, both the United States and the European Union worked diligently to include only ex-Taliban figures who gave up their guns together with their Islamist credo. So it is curious that unnamed U.S. officials do not want Palestinian elections "disrupted" over the Hamas flap.
The United States has a huge political and financial stake in democratizing the P.A. But what incentive does Hamas have to abandon the "armed struggle" if it can simultaneously pursue the bullet and the ballot?
The notion that Hamas in government would set aside its raison d'être - expelling the Jews from the Middle East - and focus on social services, sanitation and public health is naive. So, too, is the idea that once it tastes power, it will share it indefinitely with non-Islamist Palestinians.
Democracy is never "one man, one vote, one time." Given the fragile condition of Palestinian political development, promoting an unrehabilitated Hamas and giving it the kind of legitimacy that can come only from electoral participation is fool-hardy.
Can any true democrat imagine yesterday's elections in Afghanistan - or in Germany, for that matter - permitting the participation of armed militias, or an armed IRA competing in Northern Ireland's elections?
A genuinely representative system demands more than mobilizing the masses. Were this not so, the former Soviet Union would have been history's greatest democracy. Hamas wants a Palestinian society based on shari'a ("Islamic law"), but a genuine democracy demands pluralist underpinnings.
So instead of suggesting that Sharon is undermining Palestinian democracy, the United States and its European allies should apply the same yardstick to democracy-building among the Palestinians as they do in their efforts to promote freedom in Afghanistan. The ticket for participation is abandoning the gun.
Elliot Jager is deputy editorial-page editor of The Jerusalem Post.