CBS News reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.
While the dust settles not only in the West Bank and Gaza but also in world capitals from Washington to Cairo and Amman from last week's startling victory by Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections, several conclusions are becoming apparent. First, sticking to hard line positions seems to be the immediate reaction by almost everyone who has an interest in the outcome.
For its part, Hamas seems unwilling to compromise or move away from its unwillingness to recognize the legitimacy of Israel. Israel, now in the midst of its own political turmoil, says it won't deal with a Palestinian government led by Hamas until the organization changes its policies on recognizing the Jewish state and renouncing its terrorist-related activities.
President George W. Bush, not surprisingly, has taken a very hard line against the group, which Washington considers a terrorist organization. In his State of the Union speech Mr. Bush said "…the leaders of Hamas must recognize Israel, disarm, reject terrorism and work for lasting peace." The acting Prime Minister of Israel, Ehud Olmert, couldn't have put it better himself. European leaders have taken positions similar to those of Mr. Bush.
As analysts have pointed out, Hamas scored its landslide victory even after several key events took place which should have led to what most political observers expected -- a victory by the Fatah faction of the Palestinian Authority. With Yasir Arafat no longer on the scene and his successor, Fatah's Abu Mazen elected President of the PA and with the Israelis now no longer in Gaza, Hamas was expected to do well, but not this well.
Martin Indyk, a former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and now head of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, in an interview with CBS News, said "the attitude of the Palestinian people is similar to the attitude of many people when faced with failing government. They want to kick the bums out so Hamas got double its natural vote as a protest against Fatah's performance."
"The events of last week constitute a democratic coup against the institutions of peacemaking," said Rob Satloff of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Satloff isn't the only analyst in Washington saying the results were an especially bad omen for any peace prospects between Israelis and Palestinians. Indyk is even blunter: "An election process has actually brought the terrorists into power and in the process killed the peace process and left us with a big mess."
The irony of the situation is also a cause of concern and debate. Asked if the Bush administration's push for democratic reform in the Middle East had its downside, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CBS Radio in an interview just after the election, "I certainly wouldn't think we would be fearful of democracy. What is the alternative? To say that we prefer tyranny?" Rice claims the political history of most of the Middle East in the last half century has left what she likes to call a "freedom deficit."
Explaining why a group like Hamas could compete and win in a free and fair election process occurs because, she argues "there has been an absence of political space for legitimate political activity to take place, and it's clearly left a vacuum."
Asked not only about Hamas' electoral victory but also about recent parliamentary elections in Egypt where the Muslim Brotherhood did a lot better than expected, a State Department official who has worked in the region explains, "There was no other viable alternative. So it's no surprise that people intoxicated by religion and fed up with the government would vote for the Muslim Brotherhood."
The official, who asked not to be identified by name, said it is "unfair to simply judge a complicated foreign policy objective on the basis of two elections."
Indyk, who served mostly under President Clinton, but also for a short period in the Bush Administration, agrees with the prescription of democracy but says "the (Bush) administration failed repeatedly to hedge against the risk that when you push for opening the political space in societies that have no tradition of democracy the people that are going to fill that space are not the people of moderate voices of civil society which barely exist there but the extremist Islamists who have been organizing in the mosques and who have popular support because they claim they are not corrupt and failing governments and they therefore are best organized to take advantage of the situation."
For now, the focus seems to be on pressuring Hamas to reassess its position. If Hamas ends up forming the new government for the Palestinian Authority, as expected, it will have to face certain realities such as meeting a budget payroll for tens of thousands of Palestinians -- from teachers to trash collectors to local government officials and people in the security services.
Meanwhile, Mr. Bush says U.S. aid programs will not proceed with Hamas in power, not unless they change their political views toward Israel and renounce terrorism. The Europeans have sent the same signal. And Israel, which collects $40-$50 million a month in tax revenues and customs duties on behalf of the Palestinians, has said it will not turn over those monies to a Hamas-led government. Also, Iran, which has long supported Hamas' terrorist activities, and several Arab states have said they will help meet the needs of the Palestinian people.
But if Hamas faces a dilemma it is not alone. Indyk says the United States also faces one. "Washington's dilemma is how to deal with a terrorist organization in charge. If you boycott (it)…you create a failed state and drive it into the arms of Iran."
With ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, major diplomatic efforts underway to stop nuclear weapons programs in North Korea and Iran, and Osama bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri popping up unexpectedly with threats for renewed terrorist attacks, the last thing the Bush administration needed was what so often happens in the Middle East: the unintended consequence which, in this case, is the very real prospect of Hamas leading a Palestinian government.
Charles M. Wolfson