If the fledgling democracy in Iraq can be labeled a stunning success despite the blatant theocratic and anti-American tendencies of vast swaths of the Iraqi electorate, then surely today's parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories can be viewed, if we are to be fair, as a vital step in the right direction, even if Hamas takes as many seats as initial projections suggest.
Consider: The December parliamentary election in Iraq was won by a Shiite majority that marched off to the polls as part of what they openly referred to as a "religious duty," handed down by fundamentalist clerics who would like to see Iraq become an Islamic republic with close ties to Iran. (Perpetual problem child/Baghdad Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr went so far this week as to pledge his Medhi militia would fight on Iran's side in a conflict with the United States.) Meanwhile, minority Sunni voters came out to vote large numbers hoping to gain enough leverage to kick the American occupiers out. Some polling stations in Sunni areas were reportedly even guarded by insurgents, apparently taking a break from murdering U.S. servicemen and women to defend their own against foreign fighters seeking to disrupt the election. Further, any Iraqi politician pursuing normalized relations or even detente with the Israelis is marginalized.
Still, those who favored the Iraq war argue that even if democratic reforms do not immediately create a perfect, peaceful society, the eventual long-term effect will be a civilizing, moderating one, creating, in the best case scenario, a mass movement that will turn the culture of the Middle East irrevocably away from the nihilistic fanaticism threatening world stability. Strange, then, the same standards and arguments cannot be applied to Palestinian aspirations so often derided by these same advocates of democracy. Either there is an inherent right in human beings to some degree of self-determination, or there is not: We cannot pick and choose where to support democracy based on whether American troops are stationed there or not.
As such, while problematic in many ways, Hamas's political aspirations are on the whole a positive development. A situation where Hamas sits out elections antagonizing democratically elected governments would be much more volatile and dangerous than one in which it participates. For the first time, in a quantifiable, verifiable way, Hamas will be accountable to the Palestinian people. The simplistic rhetoric of a people's movement will now be judged by voters. Hamas will be forced to deliver if it hopes to maintain its newfound political power, which will almost certainly mean bowing to reason and compromise far more often than it has previously proven willing to do.
The about-face has already begun on several fronts: A Hamas leader in Gaza, Sami Abu Zukri, went so far as to call last year's municipal elections (in which the organization took 75 of the 118 council seats) "our sweetest victory." The organization's official electioneering slogan, "Change and Reform," could have been lifted from any American campaign and is targeted to those frustrated by years of Fatah rule that has not ended the occupation or abject poverty.
On Monday, Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar traveled through poor Gaza neighborhoods, promising a continuation of the armed resistance and calling for an end to the Jewish state. The typical Islamic fundamentalist line, basically. More interesting, however, was a series of very public, conciliatory comments Zahar made the week before. Not only did he declare, "Negotiation [with Israel] is not a taboo," but his professed immediate post-election plan is not a resumption of hostilities or a "million martyr march" on Jerusalem. No, the first item on the agenda is a meeting with Palestinian Authority chairman Mamoud Abbas to "tell him we have to solve the problems in health and domestic security."
Basic constituent needs, in other words. Hamas is not winning the majority of its votes based on a policy of resistance. Poll after poll shows average Palestinians do not believe they have benefited from the Intifada; that they seek the same thing most Israelis and a majority of the world's governments do: a peaceful two-state solution. Another poll this week placed approval among Palestinians for the peacemaker Abbas at more than 70 percent. Below the figurehead Abbas, however, Hamas has electoral strength as an opposition party that has cultivated support for its less savory actions by simultaneously running schools, hospitals, and welfare organizations while Arafat's Fatah siphoned aid money into offshore bank accounts to allow Suha Arafat to parade around Paris like a queen.
It's worth mentioning as well that the Fatah political campaign -- backed in part by U.S. taxpayer dollars -- has not exactly been a portrait of moderation. Fatah's major candidates closed out their runs with a collective "pilgrimage" to Yasser Arafat's Gaza home with one of the party's leaders Mohammed Dahlan intoning, "Just as we launched our campaign at the grave of Arafat -- the symbol, the martyr, the glorious one -- we end it here at his blessed home." American dollars supporting pro-Arafat propaganda: just another irony of American-style democratic reform.
Democracy has given Palestinians a voice, and considering their dire situation and seemingly never-ending refugee status, should there ever have been even a modicum of doubt as to what that voice would say once un-gagged? It is a given that Fatah would be punished after so much suffering. But the unambiguous goals of the Palestinian people do not match the goals of Hamas. If the terrorist organization does not adapt, its "sweetest victory" will be short-lived indeed.