The voting for Hamas in the latest Palestinian legislative elections (January 2006), does not necessarily constitute an endorsement either of its agenda, or its modus operandi and military option. It was rather the expression of a number of elements which together led to an increase in the electoral votes that went to the movement. In spite of the exaggerated estimate of Hamas's victory, the real gauge of the direction of Palestinian public opinion is the results of the proportional elections for party lists, which were held on a national rather than a constituency basis, where Hamas got 44 percent of the total electoral votes. The fact that Hamas won an absolute majority in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) was due to the mixed (parallel) electoral system adopted by the Palestinian Authority (PA). According to this system, one half of the seats is elected nationwide as one constituency where voters vote for a list. The other half is elected on a personal basis in sixteen constituencies where voters elect the individual candidate of their choice. It was in this part of the elections that Hamas forged ahead because it succeeded in choosing the right candidates, whereas Fateh failed to do so. In any event, several factors have shaped the results of the Palestinian elections; most prominent among them were the following:

* The association of the PA with corruption, the connection between Fateh and the PA and, as a consequence, the linkage between Fateh and corruption. The latter is an issue that elicits much public concern, especially in a society grappling with poverty and deprivation, and yearning ever increasingly for social justice and fairness. It was not surprising then that the slogan "Change and Reform" which Hamas used in its campaign should resonate with the voters.

* The failure of the Oslo peace process led by Fateh to deliver on promises made to the Palestinian people: an end to the occupation and the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Not only were their expectations thwarted, but the opposite occurred. Throughout the past 15 years of fruitless negotiations, Israel has maintained its colonization policy of building or expanding Jewish colonies (settlements) in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, in addition to the recent construction of the "separation wall," which led to the gobbling up of still more Palestinian land. As such, the Fateh-led PA was blamed for bringing about the settlements and the separation wall through its mismanagement of the negotiations and its one-sided concessions to Israel.

* The closure and siege on Palestinian cities, villages and refugee camps which damaged the Palestinian economy, and the building of the separation wall which caused a sharp rise in unemployment and an increase in poverty. Again the onus of responsibility was placed on the Fateh-led PA.

* The general security conditions which impacted negatively on the Palestinian internal security and led to the spread of chaos, crime, and the absence of the rule of law. For this, too, Fateh was blamed.

* The failure of the Fateh leadership to run fair and clean primaries for choosing its candidates for the elections in the proportional list and the constituencies. This failure drove some Fateh members to run as independents, harming thus the movement's image and that of its designated candidates, and leading to the dispersal of the votes among the many contenders from the same movement. Hamas, on the other hand, was more solid and united.

* Some other factors also played a role, such as the appeal by Hamas to the religious sentiments of the voters, and its use of mosques as venues for interaction with the people in order to win their trust. Also, the distribution by Hamas of services and material aid to poor and needy families helped in tipping the balance.

* Finally, the uproar raised by Israel against the participation of Hamas in the elections led, in the end, to an increase in the popularity of Hamas and a greater sympathy for it.

It is worth noting that the Palestinian voters see in the occupation the principal cause for all their ordeals and hardships. Thus it is rare to find anyone who would blame Hamas's suicide attacks inside Israel, for instance, as the actions which prompted the building of the separation wall, or the closure and the siege - to the contrary, the people sympathize with those who resist the occupation and become its targets or victims.

Implications of a Hamas Victory

The question that poses itself in this context is whether the results of the elections had been carefully calculated by Hamas, or whether they turned out to be a surprise even to Hamas itself. And was Hamas, as a consequence, taken unawares, not yet prepared to assume the reins of government, with all that this implies?
The fact that Hamas decided to participate in the legislative elections points to its determination to play a political role in the Palestinian-Israeli arena. Whoever takes part in elections is, naturally, seeking to enter parliament and to participate in public life - whether in the government or the opposition.
It is a known fact that it is easier for radical parties or movements to be in the opposition than to bear the responsibility of governing and confronting regional and international obligations and restrictions. It would be naïve to assume that the Hamas leadership did not consider this reality. Despite that, the movement participated in the elections, won with a large majority, and accepted that one of its leaders be charged with forming the future government. Sooner or later, though, Hamas will be called upon to take many crucial decisions which it would not have had to make had it remained in the opposition or outside the political arena.

Hamas and Future Challenges

Some Hamas leaders, both from the inside and the exile, have begun to adopt a statesmanlike rhetoric, sending positive and reassuring signals regarding the future intentions of the movement; others are still repeating the same old slogans - but neither group has made any essential changes in the movement's platform or covenant. All that Hamas is talking about at this stage is the proposal of a long-term hudna (ceasefire) with Israel.
Hamas tried hard to convince Fateh and other PLO factions to join its government. This did not work out simply because Hamas was not ready to accept a clear-cut recognition that the PLO is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, and to commit itself to all the agreements signed by the PLO.
Since efforts to form a national unity government with the participation of Fateh and other PLO factions have failed, Hamas has formed a government mainly with its own members and "independents" affiliated with it. This is the first time in the Arab world that an Islamic movement comes to power through democratic processes, and one can hazard the opinion that Hamas will try every possible means to stay in power. This will also entail a gradual fundamental change in its platform, but in its own way.

A Hamas Government

To stay in power means that Hamas will have to change its position for one that espouses the same notions and language of the international community and which Fateh has embraced since the 19th PLO National Council that was held in Algiers in November 1988, and the historic decisions taken then to recognize UN resolutions 242 and 338 and to accept the principle of a two-state solution. If this occurs, the result will be a new Hamas which will be much more akin to Fateh but calls itself "Hamas." And perhaps it will attract all Fateh cadres who have become disenchanted with their leadership widely associated with unsuccessful negotiation methods and saddled with corruption and power abuse.
If and when Hamas alters its position, it will assuredly have the opportunity to effect the changes in return for parallel ones in the Israeli position and politics - which the Palestinian voters will perceive as achievements by Hamas. Hamas will be seen to offer one concession after another, with each being reciprocated on the Israeli side, in contrast to Fateh that repeatedly gave concessions, but failed to get from Israel anything mentionable in return. If Hamas does intend to introduce crucial changes in its platform, it will have to do so within a timeframe that in keeping with the precipitation of events in the area. It will also have to obtain a reciprocal change in the relations with the international community, and to extract from Israel whatever it is owed in return for this change.
However, if this proves to be an over-optimistic scenario, and Hamas does not change its platform and does not abide by all the commitments of the PLO and the international community; or if its timeline for concessions fails to keep pace with the volatility of the situation in the area, it will find itself overtaken by events and facing severe problems.
Hamas must realize that the world refuses to deal with a policy of prevarication and temporization. It should declare unequivocally whether it chooses the path of conciliation, with all the conditions that this entails, or the path of resistance; and that, while it offers Israel a long-term hudna, it does so in isolation from any other political reference based on Oslo or any agreement related to it.
In all cases, Israel is going to be the winner, whether Hamas is tamed and goes down the road that Fateh took before it, or whether it holds on to its covenant and platform of violent resistance. Because in this case, Israel will take advantage of a Hamas-headed government in order to proceed with unilateral steps to consolidate borders and to create a new reality in the West Bank and Jerusalem.
Israeli leaders claim that the coming of Hamas to power with a sweeping majority in the PLC and the government would paralyze all efforts to reach a political settlement to the conflict. They see in the platform of Hamas a justification for Israel to continue the amplification of its military operations and its pressure on the PA, and to simultaneously carry on with its building of the separation wall and the implementation of its unilateral plan in the West Bank, with the excuse that there is no Palestinian partner.
Hamas has maneuvered itself into a situation where it is going to face the real test of having to decide between being a pragmatic movement capable of adaptation in order to survive, or a blinkered movement that does not deviate from its goal, irrespective of regional and international requirements and realities. Changing its platform will trigger an internal rift within Hamas between those who are sending out reasonable and pragmatic signals and those who are sticking to the traditionally known position of the movement. Should the hard-line, rejectionist current win, then the future is going to be very bleak indeed. Although the failure of Hamas in the political arena will be inevitable in this case, it is difficult to foretell what is going to be its fate as a resistance movement that has chosen the path of violent struggle to achieve its program.

Pressuring Hamas

Financial pressure and withholding aid from the Hamas government will cause a humanitarian catastrophe for the Palestinian people - something that must not be allowed to happen. Donor countries should continue their support for the PA, and Israel has no right to withhold cash payments of the tax revenues which it collects on behalf of the PA in accordance with the Paris Accords, and which amount to U.S. $50-60 million per month. This money belongs to the Palestinian people.
The call for piling pressure on Hamas to force it to respond to the conditions set by the U.S. and Europe - namely, the renunciation of violence and terrorism, the recognition of the right of Israel to exist, and the recognition of all the agreements signed between the PLO and Israel - is viewed as an imbalanced position. Palestinians wish to see what conditions are placed also on Israel for it to prove its readiness and willingness for a peaceful settlement to the conflict.
Pressuring Hamas should not be a means to punish the Palestinian people and to deprive them of sorely needed international financial aid that assures them the minimum level of living requirements, as is the case today. The halting of aid to the Palestinian government under the pretence that it is now headed by Hamas is categorically rejected. In the eventuality this materializes, it becomes imperative to find alternative mechanisms and means to support the Palestinian people and to secure for them continuity in the provision of vital services, like health, education, water, electricity, municipal services and others.

Hamas and the PA President

Mahmoud Abbas has acceded to the Palestinian presidency through fair and transparent elections held in January 2005, in which he got more than 63 percent of the votes. Consequently, he enjoys electoral legitimacy and greater popular support than does Hamas with the 44 percent of the electoral votes it got in the proportional elections in January 2006. Since the Palestinian political system is half-way between a presidential and a parliamentary system, the president wields strong political and executive powers. The question is what kind of relationship will exist between President Abbas, who is affiliated with Fateh, and a Hamas prime minister and government. And if there is going to be a power struggle or a vertical rift in the Authority driving it to adopt two contradictory programs, which of the two sides will be able to impose its will on the other?
During his first year in office, President Abbas has proven that he can be a statesman who rises above narrow party politics, and that he is the president of all the Palestinian people and not just Fateh supporters. He has insisted on holding the legislative elections on schedule, in spite of the warnings that his party was going to lose. He has succeeded in ensuring the necessary security climate for the holding and the success of these elections and, subsequently, in announcing the results. He was also able to endorse the results while avoiding violence or confrontations among the various factions, and also to secure the compliance of the population with the results.
Nonetheless, President Abbas is perceived as one who does not generally rush into decisions. If he wishes to carry out his role of president of the PLO and the PA, and at the same time to attempt to conciliate between this and his Fateh affiliation - which has its dictates too - and to see that Fateh does not disappear from the political map, he is going to find himself in the face of a difficult task. He will have to change his style of governing and to become more resolute and swifter in taking decisions, especially when he is confronted by a situation where decisions have to be made vis-à-vis a government that belongs to a party other than his own and with a different agenda.

Abbas, Hamas, and the PLO

Hamas has tried in the past to place certain conditions for its participation in frameworks and institutions of the PLO. It failed on the ground that it exaggerated the estimation of its size, demanding a bigger share of representation based on that. But Hamas today is more self-confident after the majority proportion it got in the PLC. Perhaps this explains its refusal to include in its platform the recognition of the PLO as the sole representative of the Palestinian people; it wants to wait till it takes over the PLO. The fact that President Abbas, on receiving the names of the new cabinet from the Hamas-nominated Prime Minister, Ismail Haniyyeh, announced that he would be the one to present the names to the PLO Executive Committee for endorsement, signals the beginning of friction or arm-twisting between Hamas and the PLO. It is more likely, though, that Abbas will try to delay any confrontation between the two, at least for the time being.
It is expected that President Abbas in his capacity as a Fateh member will work on two tracks. The first is to reactivate the PLO institutions and to give them an effective role in the negotiation and decision-making process in whatever relates to them, so that the pioneering role of the organization is preserved. Secondly, he has to avoid a Hamas hegemony in the PLO by having Hamas participate in the organization, but without becoming a key element there.

Abbas and Fatah

As for Fateh, the challenges that the president faces as a member of the movement far outweigh the ones he faces in rebuilding the PLO. Fateh has not renovated its institutions or leadership since the holding of its 5th conference in 1989. According to the by-laws of the movement, a leadership framework exists which is the Central Committee. Since 1989, a number of its members have either been killed or have died, while others have fallen ill or grown old. Nonetheless, the remaining members claim that they enjoy the legitimacy of the elections and insist on carrying out their leadership role in the movement.
If President Abbas wants to retrieve for Fateh its prominence, to stop its fragmentation, and to resolve the deep fissures that have started to appear within the movement, especially in the wake of the controversial primaries of the legislative elections, he has to initiate practical steps to reunite the movement and solidify its cohesion. This means taking charge of reorganizing the movement from the bottom up, starting with a clear definition of membership and achieving internal conciliation through regional conferences and ending in the 6th general conference of the movement. The latter will have for task the election of the Revolutionary Council and the Central Committee.
The presence of Hamas in the government, whether as a pragmatic movement eager to stay in power, or as a hard-line movement that will be compelled to abandon it or step down, calls for a strong cohesive Fateh, with the capacity to act and to exercise its influence.

A Final Word

The attempt to blackmail the Palestinian people and to humiliate them by imposing disgraceful conditions on them will only lead to an increase in the popularity of Hamas and the rallying of the population around it.
The results of the recent Israeli elections (March 2006) clearly show a decline in support for the extreme right and the settlers movement. At least some eighty Knesset members will be ready to join a government which will tilt, more or less, in the direction of peacemaking. This opportunity should not be missed. And the policy of unilateralism should be put aside for the sake of a bilateral peace agreement.
Today, more than ever, the need exists for an international initiative that will rely in its first part on a quick and equitable implementation of the first stage of the Roadmap. Its second part should focus on a practical plan to achieve a just and lasting peace that will encompass the Arab peace initiative, which was declared in Beirut in 2002, and to pick up from the point at which the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations had reached in 2000, under the auspices of then-U.S. President Clinton. These have espoused the principle of complete withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967, including Arab East Jerusalem, taking into account the possibility of land swap on the principle of same area and same value, and a solution to the Palestinian question in all its aspects, including the refugee problem.
A mechanism and timetable for the implementation of this plan is a must. An initiative of this kind will provide the opportunity for an international involvement in order to impose a solution for the sake of both the Palestinian and Israeli peoples.