Nathan Brown, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
Leslie Campbell, National Democratic Institute
Robert Malley, International Crisis Group

Marina Ottaway, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Marina Ottaway began by spotlighting the dramatic turning point of the recent Palestinian elections, and introducing the three speakers, all of whom were in Palestine as observers.

Nathan Brown observed that several weeks prior to the elections he had compared the elections to a train wreck in slow motion.  He was incorrect in that events did not unfold slowly at all, but whether he was incorrect in labeling them a train wreck remains to be seen.  Observing the election in Palestine, the current sense of international crisis was entirely absent.  Hamas appeared not as a pariah but a normal, viable, and reasonable choice from the Palestinian point of view, with a good stand on internal violence and a clear anti-corruption agenda.  In fact, Hamas was only a poor choice if the elections were viewed as a referendum on the peace process, a dynamic that Hamas actively and effectively downplayed during the campaign. 

The irony of the situation is that the international community demanded clean elections; it got them, and is now forced to deal with the consequences.  Brown went on to highlight those consequences for the governance of Palestine.  Hamas will be well situated to affect matters of internal governance, with the ability to approve the cabinet, control the budget, and write legislation.  However, there are three important things that Hamas will not be able to do.  First, Hamas will not be able to negotiate peace with Israel, since negotiations are, at least on paper, run through the PLO and not the Palestinian Authority.  Second, Hamas will not have enough of a majority to change the Basic Law.  And third, Hamas will not have the votes in Parliament to override a presidential veto.  There is also a host of fairly autonomous Palestinian institutions that will remain outside of Hamas’s power, such as the central election commission and the judiciary.  Finally, there will be a post-election contest over kinds of institutions and processes, such as the security services and, most importantly, the appointment of the prime minister.  Such struggles are normal in any transition election but in this case there are other issues involved, the most important being finding a way out of the international impasse created by the result.  Some observers have thrown out several potential formulas to that end, such as a revival of the PLO, accepting the outcome of presidential negotiations, or acceptance of Arab League declarations or popular referendums.  No one knows whether Hamas will accept any of these positions, but Brown asserts that the international community must explore those options and nail down a formula instead of accepting a coordinated unilateralism that means little more than the law of the jungle.

Leslie Campbell pointed out that, although most did not predict the number of seats Hamas would win, the election results were themselves not surprising.  Polls had shown that although Hamas and Fatah were neck and neck, Hamas voters were much more likely to vote in the election.  Hamas also led a much more disciplined campaign, and did not split its votes by running multiple candidates in a single district (as Fatah did).  Campbell proceeded to address some of the longer-term democracy issues surrounding the elections.  First, he stated that the outcome of the recent elections was the result of several lost opportunities.  One was the opportunity to restrict candidates associated with violence from taking part in the elections through a political party law or a voluntary code of conduct, as recommended in a joint IFES/NDI/IRI report released in 2002.  Another was the opportunity for Fatah and the Palestinian moderates improve their performance in response to Hamas’s gradually rising support, which would have become clear in the two missed elections of 1999 and 2003.  Second, the elections are an example of why democracy should not come second to other issues, in this case the peace process.  Many in the international community put a great deal of emphasis on individuals who they felt could sell the peace process, neglecting what they viewed as inconvenient democratic institutions.  Now, those individual leaders have been defeated and the international community has consolidated neither peace nor democracy. 

Third, elections are only part of building democracy.  The Palestinian elections were extremely well run, but what comes after them is more significant.  Fourth, this election will have profound, and potentially positive, effects on democratization throughout the region.  The efficacy of the United States in democracy promotion is often hurt by the double-standard argument, or the claim that the United States props up friendly actors for strategic reasons, to which the USAID-funded observation mission’s cementing of Hamas’s democratic victory will be an effective counter.  And, other Islamist groups could win forthcoming elections in Bahrain and Yemen, and are strong in Jordan and Egypt; the victory of Hamas will be a test case for how effectively and democratically Islamist parties perform in government.  Campbell’s policy recommendations are to: stay the course on democracy, since only successive iterations of democratic elections will allow the emergence of a moderate center; increase democracy assistance to other democracy fields such as civil society and parliamentary strengthening; and address the framework issues, with election laws or party laws, so that parties adhere to acceptable standards of conduct. 

Robert Malley highlighted that Hamas’s victory is very much the opposite scenario of what the Bush administration had in mind, which was for Hamas win only a few seats in parliament, thus becoming a minority party in a parliament whose laws it would have to abide by and sending a message to the region that secular forces would win in a free and fair election.  Yet, this is an “equal opportunity headache” that creates problems not only for the United States, but also for the Arab world, Israel, and Hamas itself.  Malley suggests that Hamas did not expect this victory, nor did it want it.  Hamas was instead hoping to win a strong second, where it could take credit for what went well, blame the Palestinian Authority for what did not, and avoid taking risks and making decisions.  Malley then identified three somewhat paradoxical opportunities opened up by the election.  First, Hamas is now more constrained and more dependent on other actors. It needs to prove that it can deliver to the Palestinians, something it cannot do if it either fails to maintain quiet in the Palestinian territories or pushes away the international community.  Second, President Mahmud Abbas may have more power today than he would if Fatah had won the elections.  Hamas needs him to maintain order, the United States and Israel need him as a negotiating partner, and Palestinians need him to prevent a civil war. 

Third, Malley asserted that the U.S. can now achieve more at less cost, since a slim Fatah victory would have changed nothing in the domestic Palestinian political scene or the peace process.  Paradoxically, Israel’s approach of unilateral disengagement actually matches better with Hamas’s approach of unilateral long-term ceasefire than with Abbas’s vision of a bilateral permanent status agreement.  Moreover, the core interest of the United States is to prevent a resumption of violence, and that means dragging Islamists and Hamas supporters into the political process.  Yet, if the United States and the international community make it too easy for Hamas to enter government, Hamas’s ideology and behavior will be legitimized.  On the other hand, if it is made too difficult, by asking Hamas to renounce violence and recognize Israel, Hamas will walk away from the political process.  And they will do so with the support of Palestinians who already feel dispossessed and humiliated by the international community, as made clear by the elections, which Malley contends were an act of defiance against the management of the peace process. 

Malley closed the discussion by suggesting that there are several things the United States can do to move the process along.  First is what it does not have to do, and that is to engage Hamas while it is still a terrorist organization.  Doing so would legitimize its outlook and behavior and violate the principles of the United States.  But second is that the United States should not condemn a government that Hamas supports without justification, should judge Hamas on its actions and performance, and should put Hamas in a position where it has to say definitively yes or no to practical political compromises.  The alternative is to watch Hamas revert to the conditions that made it viable in the first place, and a possible collapse of the Palestinian Authority, resulting in a poor and desperate Palestinian population that it is theoretically Israel’s responsibility to care for.  Malley pointed out that there are many things that could derail this scenario, such as domestic pressures within the United States and Israel and Fatah’s desire for revenge.  However, the election of Hamas was authentic and representative, and as democratization is a process by which extremists are given an alternative to extremism, it is time to see if it can succeed.

Synopsis prepared by Meredith Riley, Junior Fellow in the Democracy and Rule of Law Project.