...This now accepted wisdom ignores the complex realities of Palestinian domestic politics. For many years after a legislative council was elected in 1996, a broad spectrum of Palestinians advocated for new elections to replace it. The decision to proceed with the elections, therefore, reflected domestic Palestinian considerations as much as international pressures.
Having made the decision to proceed with elections, Abbas rejected suggestions to exclude Hamas from the process unless they changed their charter. He reasoned that having them serve in the legislature would, over time, moderate their more radical elements. However, Abbas underestimated the extent of public anger with the ruling party’s performance and miscalculated the organizational strength of Hamas. Consequently, he was unprepared, as were most analysts, for Hamas obtaining an outright majority in the Legislative Council. With the formation of a Hamas government, Israel and the international community imposed a series of sanctions that have crippled the Palestinian economy but have not necessarily weakened Hamas politically.
With the Hamas military takeover of Gaza, Abbas dismissed the Hamas-led unity government and designated as the new Prime Minister, the internationally-respected Salam Fayyad. The Administration quickly endorsed Abbas’ action and promised to ease the sanctions imposed on the previous government. Some analysts view this approach as a misguided effort to create a permanent schism between Hamas and the moderate political actors in Palestinian society; they argue that one likely result is Hamas turning up the heat in the West Bank and directing terrorist actions against Israel.
My view is that the Administration is acting wisely in supporting Abbas and Fayyad. Given the events of the past two weeks, Abbas is well within his prerogatives to act as he did, although he must walk a careful line if he wants to adhere to the strictures of Palestinian law. Whether the Abbas/Fayyad government will now take steps to root out terrorist cells in the West Bank through force, as Israel and the US have long urged, remains to be seen. Given their personal dispositions, it is just as likely that Abbas and Fayyad will seek to accomplish this goal through dialogue and co-opting some bad actors into better behavior. The Administration and other interested actors should provide the new government with room to operate, and not insist on an ideological approach to eliminating Hamas, which obviously continues to retain strong support in regions of the West Bank. And, the physical and now political separation of Gaza from the West Bank should not be used to exacerbate the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Finally, I hope that neither the Administration nor Israel nor others in the international community mistakenly assume that events of the past 18 months suggest that democracy cannot take root in the Palestinian Territories. On the contrary, I am more convinced than ever that a serious peace effort involving the Palestinians must be premised on respect for democratic governance and buy-in by the Palestinian public. Obviously, buy-in by the Israeli public, or at least a solid majority who would endorse their government’s actions to reach an agreement with the Palestinians, is also essential.