Hamas is moving steadily toward establishing a cabinet based entirely on its adherents and its religious-political philosophy. Within days that cabinet may well be in place. In parallel, the nature and composition of the next Israeli government will begin to emerge following elections on March 28. Thus, some of the main consequences of the Hamas victory in the Palestinian Authority elections of January 25 are beginning to fall into place.
For one, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) appears to be steadily backpedaling and yielding to Hamas. He began by presenting a set of impressive conditions for Hamas to qualify to form a government, and sought to postpone the establishment of that government until well after Israel’s elections. The "dinosaurs" of the anachronistic PLO leadership weighed in with their conditions. Hamas has responded by ignoring them all, and is seeking immediate parliamentary approval for its cabinet. Now Abu Mazen promises (threatens?) to monitor the new government’s performance closely and intervene (disband the government? hold new elections?) if it does not perform to his standards concerning Israel and a peace process. Let’s not hold our breath on this one; Abu Mazen’s commitments and conditions, which are impressive when viewed out of context, ceased long ago to be credible.
By the same token, there is little chance of a renewed peace process, or roadmap process or even serious negotiations in the coming months. The Israeli left, if it joins a coalition with Kadima, will try to hold that party to its promise to at least explore the possibility of negotiating before applying itself to disengagement, hereinafter known as "convergence". But Abu Mazen’s performance truly does not inspire confidence that a PLO peace track can somehow bypass Hamas and the PA and save Israel from reliance on more disengagement.
Abu Mazen is also reportedly seeking to involve the Arab League, which meets this week in Khartoum, on his side. The idea appears to be to confront Hamas with a reaffirmation of the Saudi plan, approved by the League in March 2002. Back then the Sharon government dismissed the plan out of hand, when in fact it should have welcomed it–problematic as it is from the Israeli standpoint–as a step forward by the Arab community toward a comprehensive peace. Now, even in the best case, the plan will not bring Hamas to the negotiating table. Still, Arab League pressure on Hamas to align its policies with the Saudi plan cannot hurt.
Meanwhile the ceasefire, or lull (tahdiya) appears likely to continue for at least a few months, as Hamas strives to stabilize its rule and Ehud Olmert organizes a coalition. In this regard, the immediate question is, how will Hamas behave toward those Palestinian actors–Islamic Jihad, Fateh dissidents, PFLP–who don’t recognize the ceasefire and seek to sabotage, first, Israel’s elections, and then the ceasefire itself. A refusal on the part of a Hamas minister of internal security to act against these terrorists could considerably shorten the span of Israeli patience toward a Hamas government. Yet this is almost certainly what will happen.
Finally, and perhaps most significantly for the long term prospects of either moderating Hamas or removing it from power, the new government will, beginning this week, confront the domestic challenge of managing and funding government activities. It will presumably tackle this issue energetically, launching laudable anti-corruption and self-sufficiency programs, finding subterfuges for international donor funds and Israeli-collected taxes to be delivered indirectly via NGOs, and calling upon a variety of Arab and Islamic donors to increase their support. But it will have to use caution in firing the tens of thousands of Fateh-supporters who draw inflated salaries without working, lest it confront mutiny.
In dealing with Hamas’ performance, Israel, the moderate Arab states and the international community, led by the US and the EU, should keep in mind three factors. First, there is no precedent for the Muslim Brotherhood taking power by elections in an Arab country. We simply cannot know for sure how Hamas will behave. Hence caution is indicated in the early days: watch and wait; use both carrots and sticks.
Second, everything we know about Israeli-Palestinian interaction tells us that economic sanctions that further impoverish Palestinians will not have the desired effect of moderating Hamas. To the contrary, they will further radicalize Palestinian society. This is not to say that we should throw money at a Hamas government, or that international donor aid will moderate it. Certainly there is no reason to reward Hamas for its extremist, anti-peace positions. But it makes little sense to punish Palestinians for them, either.
Finally, we must constantly remind ourselves that, at the end of the day, and no matter how long it takes and how cautiously it goes about it, Hamas has a single, overriding mission: Islamization of Palestinian society. Those in Palestine, Israel and beyond who ignore this factor are liable to pay a heavy price for their willful ignorance.