So What if Hamas Wins the Vote?



According to comprehensive polls of the Palestinian and Israeli populations, the two peoples are moving closer on the key issues that have divided them in the past. If the polls translate into votes in the Jan. 25 Palestinian election and the March 28 Israeli election, progress toward resolution of the conflict would seem to be inevitable.

Unfortunately, only the Israeli electorate appears likely to vote in accordance with the polls'' findings. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert''s Kadima Party holds a commanding lead. And Olmert is running as a centrist, ready for compromise with the Palestinian Authority, and for confrontation with settlers in the illegal outposts and their fanatical brethren in Hebron.

It is on the Palestinian side where the attitudes reflected in the polls seem not to be translating into votes. Hamas continues to gain strength in the legislative elections (the presidential election took place last year, and President Mahmoud Abbas remains in the office no matter what the result this month), while Abbas'' Fatah continues to lose it. It''s even possible that Hamas will win the election, something few would have considered a few months ago.

What''s going on?

Israelis have given up on the idea of Greater Israel, and are resigned to a West Bank/Gaza Palestinian state and the dismantling of settlements. Barring some unforeseen event, they appear ready to vote accordingly.

A significant new poll of Palestinian attitudes points in the same direction. The poll, conducted by Palestinian pollster Dr. Khalil Shikaki for the United States Institute of Peace''s Project on Arab-Israeli Futures, finds that "for the first time since the start of the peace process, a majority of Palestinians support a compromise settlement that is acceptable to a majority of Israelis."

According to the USIP-sponsored poll, "a majority of Palestinians are willing to accept the two-state solution by which "Palestinians recognize Israel ''as the state of the Jewish people'' and Palestine [the West Bank and Gaza] ''as the state of the Palestinian people.'' In June 2003, 52 percent supported and 46 percent opposed this formula, and by September 2005 support rose to 63 percent and opposition dropped to 35 percent."

The idea that Palestinians can be beaten into submission is precisely wrong – and not just morally. The more painful and onerous the occupation feels, the more Palestinians move toward support for terrorism and opposition to the kind of approach represented by Mahmoud Abbas and others like him.

The current high levels of support for a two-state solution is primarily a product of the cease-fire and a reduction in violence that has taken hold since the death of Yasser Arafat.

The only fly in this ointment is the strong possibility that Hamas will run strongly in next week''s election. If Palestinians support accommodation with Israel, why would they vote for a party that doesn''t?

The answer is that a vote for Hamas is not necessarily a vote for Hamas'' stance on Israel.

Virtually every observer of the Palestinian scene – and the polls as well – show that the main appeal of Hamas is its apparent incorruptibility. Most Palestinians view the Palestinian Authority (and the Fatah Party that controls it) as hopelessly corrupt, inefficient and dominated by cronyism. Arafat is gone, but the kind of governance he represented is thriving. Mahmoud Abbas has simply not been able to clean house.

Hamas promises that it will. It plays down its views on peacemaking. It will be important to bear this point in mind as the votes come in.

It may also not correlate into Palestinians giving up on the two-state idea. The Shikaki poll shows that the very opposite is the case, which means that Hamas will have no mandate to reignite the intifada.

We may not like the results of the Palestinian election, but if they are designated "free and fair" by the U.S. National Democratic Institute and the other international observers, we will have to figure out some way to come to terms with them.

And here''s the good news. A Hamas in power will itself have to come to terms with a Palestinian populace that supports its social programs and lack of corruption, but opposes its stance on Israel. That''s why the diplomatic process will survive Wednesday''s Palestinian election (and certainly Israel''s on March 28).

Public opinion matters in democracies, which is why a democratic Palestinian election is a step in the right direction, even if we don''t like the guys who win.

M.J. Rosenberg is director of policy analysis at the Israel Policy Forum.



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