The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections has set the rest of the world a dilemma.
The Palestinians have chosen Hamas and therefore the democratic choice has to be accepted, especially as spreading democracy in the “Greater Middle East” is the goal of the Bush administration.
But Hamas is listed as a terrorist organisation by both the US and the EU and unless the group accepts that Israel should exist, it is hard to see how it can be a negotiating partner, even if it wants to be.
The so-called roadmap to Middle East peace, already gathering dust, might as well be rolled up for good.
It calls for action against “individuals and groups conducting and planning violent attacks on Israelis anywhere.” However, those same groups supposed to be arrested and disrupted are now to form the government, which certainly makes the roadmap look a little dated.
Two ways forward
Internationally the push is on for Hamas to change.
President Bush, who said in 2003 that “in order for there to be peace, Hamas must be dismantled”, now says simply that Hamas is “a party with which we will not deal” unless it gives up violence and accepts Israel.
George W Bush
The Quartet of the US, the EU, Russia and the UN, which collectively drew up the roadmap, has also called on Hamas to end violence and recognise Israel.
And there an immediate issue of finance. The US ($400m) and the EU ($300m) between them provide most of the foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority and to Palestinians. Will this continue?
There are two broad avenues along which events might take their course.
The pessimists will see a further battening down by Israel, further construction of the wall and fence that is being built to separate the Israeli and Palestinian populations, and a continuation of what the Irish writer and diplomat Conor Cruise O’Brien once called ‘The Siege’, by which he meant the endless confrontation between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
According to this view, the Israelis will circle their wagons even more and shut up shop for the duration.
There is also the danger of a more violent confrontation of course. Settlement failure
“We are entering a period of extreme uncertainty,” said Danny Shek, a former Israeli foreign ministry spokesman who now runs the British Israel Communications Centre in London.
“The Israeli elections [on 28 March] will be affected by this though how far depends on what Hamas does. How will Hamas handle the Hamas victory?”
The victory is seen by some as the culmination of the failure to achieve a comprehensive settlement. Moderates from each side came close at Camp David in 2000 and closer in later talks in the Egyptian resort of Taba. But all that fell away.
The Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding in London said there had to be talks. “Just as Palestinians had to deal with the rejectionist Likud government of Ariel Sharon from 2001, so Israel will have to deal with a new Palestinian government,” it said.
A complete standoff between Israel and the Palestinians will make an international role redundant, though Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will remain as a point of contact.
The optimists will see the possibility of Hamas settling into government, realising that it is not as easy as it sounds and continuing a de facto ceasefire with Israel.
If it does, then one can envisage discreet contacts as time goes by, especially by the Europeans whose diplomats have been in touch with elected Hamas mayors in the West Bank over recent months.
Then, over a longer period, it might change as once the Palestine Liberation Organisation changed.
The PLO, too, in its charter, called for a single state of Palestine between the Mediterranean and the River Jordan.
In later years however it distanced itself from the charter and its leader Yasser Arafat went on to negotiate with Israel for a two-state solution.
Right-wing Israelis also once campaigned for a single state of Israel between the sea and the river.
However, change might be slow if it happens at all. Hamas after all has won not on the basis of compromise but on the basis of strength.
Hamas’ charter is much more hostile to Israel and to Jews than that of the PLO and therefore Hamas has further to go. And it took the PLO 25 years to travel from the publication of its charter to the handshake on the White House lawn between Yasser Arafat and the then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
The Hamas charter not only matches the PLO in calling for a single state of Palestine.
It also mentions the notorious pre-Soviet Russia anti-Semitic forgery “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which purported to show a worldwide Jewish conspiracy.
“After Palestine, the Zionists aspire to expand from the Nile to the Euphrates. When they will have digested the region they overtook, they will aspire to further expansion, and so on. Their plan is embodied in the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, and their present conduct is the best proof of what we are saying,” the charter says.
It is true that Hamas did not mention this in its election campaign and observers have pointed out that much of the support for Hamas came out of disillusion with the Fatah party which has ruled until now. But one cannot ignore basic documents.
Of course it is always possible that Hamas too will not govern well – how far will Palestinians really want to develop an Islamic society, one wonders – and that Fatah might return.
And if a pragmatic Hamas trend develops, then there could be a period of no peace yet no war.
It would not be ideal, but that is the way it has been in the Middle East for much of the last 55 years and more.