February 1, 2006
Palestine's Hamas Government: Old Radicalism or New Pragmatism?

By Austin Bay

Hamas versus Fatah in Palestine illustrates a political dilemma all too common in the developing world: a choice between rule by corrupt autocrats or violent revolt led by religious or ethnic zealots promising glory and utopia.

But is this really a choice? Afghanistan buckled and broke after the Soviet invasion and a decade of chaotic war. Taliban religious zealots offered an end to conflict and corruption. Of course, in short order, the entire Taliban government became a creature of violence, intimidation, graft and theft -- in other words, heinously autocratic and corrupt.

That's the track even the zealots follow: Once they are the government wielding power, and if that power is unchecked, unchallenged and unpoliced, corruption inevitably follows. The revolutionary promises of sectarian or egalitarian utopia, recovered tribal glory or national resurrection then become propaganda tropes masking "the gang in control."

Democracy may not be a perfect defense against the Mafia -- obviously, it is not. American mobsters exist. They intimidate judges in New Jersey, own aldermen in Chicago and slide cash to congressmen via K Street. Democracies, however, tend to marginalize gangsters, in the same way they tend to marginalize political extremists. With checks and balances like the rule of law, the free press and electoral politics, Al Capones and Jack Abramoffs end up in jail. Even a president can lose his law license for "misleading" a federal judge.

Democracy is no perfect defense against religious and ethnic terrorists, either. Hamas won an election, soundly drubbing secular Fatah.

Democracy is flawed -- the other choices, however, are fatal.

In an interview on Jan. 30, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice rejected the idea that Hamas' victory would lead the United States to renege on its commitment to democracy in the Middle East.

"What is the alternative to believing in democracy so that people can express themselves?" Rice replied. "The alternative is to say that they shouldn't have the right to express themselves. The alternative is to say that it is better that the people of the Middle East continue to have no say in who will govern them, continue to have no say in how their interests are going to be represented."

She added this caveat: "... those who win elections have an obligation to govern democratically, and I hope the people who elected -- who elect governments will hold them to the obligation to govern democratically. That means that the same people who have used the open political system to come to power have to keep the system open to opposition to their views and to their ideas."

Rice went on to express her belief that this is an "evolutionary" period, and pointed out that in Iraq and Afghanistan the United States is dealing with Islamic groups that are "democratic in their orientation."

Can Hamas evolve?

Hamas assumes power with a political platform that includes the destruction of Israel. "Insurgent Hamas" could freely criticize Fatah and promise the "utopian" destruction of Israel. "Government Hamas," however, must put up or shut up. Here's a guarantee: Israel's destruction is a campaign promise Hamas cannot fulfill. That places Hamas in a political and ideological vise. If Hamas stalwarts attempt to destroy Israel, the Israelis will beat them and beat them badly. Israel may even have Fatah as an ally.

This is why some Israelis see Hamas' victory as a positive development. "I think it is the best chance for peace," a resident of Haifa told The New York Times. "I think Hamas can understand there is no way to destroy the state of Israel and will take a course to peace."

Optimists argue the responsibility of governing, the reality of Israel and competition from Fatah will force Hamas to drop the old radicalism in favor of a new, productive pragmatism.

Hamas also promised to perform the quotidian duties Fatah's wardheelers often failed to do -- like fix the potholes. However, that takes money. International donors are demanding Hamas reject violence and support the "two state solution."

Genuinely addressing transportation and water issues also entails cooperating with Israel.

The choices are stark. Violent rhetoric or flush toilets? Suicide bombs or water district bonds? Democratic revitalization or relapse to terrorist tyranny? "Government Hamas" must decide -- and quickly.

Copyright 2006 Creators Syndicate

Austin Bay

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