The long awaited civil war between Fatah and Hamas began and ended last week and the result was a clear victory for the latter and its secession from the union. After a meager two days of fighting the Ezz el-Deen al-Qassam Brigades had taken control of the entire Strip with its 1.5 million residents. Yet Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas and Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert both claimed to be optimistic about the outcome of the coup d’etat. “We have a new opportunity in the last few days that we haven’t had in a long time,” Olmert told incredulous reporters.
In truth Fatah hasn’t had a reason to be optimistic in years. It is still smarting from the drubbing it took in the 2006 parliamentary elections. In January 2006 the Washington Post reported that “the election results stunned U.S. and Israeli officials, who have repeatedly stated that they would not work with a Palestinian Authority that included Hamas, which both countries and the European Union have designated as a terrorist organization.”
Why Washington and Tel Aviv should have been “stunned” I cannot say. Hamas had dominated the previous year’s municipal elections, and Hamas demagogues had evident mass appeal, which in Gaza can best be gained by detonating oneself on a bus crowded with Israelis. (The “official” explanation for the Hamas victory was its network of social welfare programs, contrasted with Fatah’s reputation for corruption.) In fact Hamas succeeded in framing the election in such a way that a vote for Hamas was a vote for the destruction of Israel. While a vote for the secular Fatah party was a ballot for the peace process, i.e., peace with the Zionists.
Despite Israeli demands to stop the elections, the U.S. shrugged off its ally’s concerns, deciding that free and democratic elections were paramount. Even after the disastrous results Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice couldn’t bring herself to admit that rushing toward elections had been a half-baked idea. “The Palestinian people clearly voted for a change,” she observed, adding, “The United States trusts the process and trusts democracy,” while ignoring the obvious lesson — that Palestinian voters had overwhelmingly rejected peace.
Abbas had had no such illusions. He knew his party was in for a licking, yet he chose to delude himself that it would be easier to temper Hamas if it were part of the government. Many in the Bush administration agreed. Instead the Islamists’ victory began a year-and-a-half feud that culminated with last week’s decisive military victory for Hamas.
OF COURSE, THE U.S. HAD no choice but to back elections. Democracy promotion and immediate free elections has been its guiding principle since 9/11, despite several dubious outcomes. It seems 218 years of U.S. election history have been lost on the Bush administration. After all it wasn’t until 175 years after the first presidential election that all U.S. citizens were able to vote. (America didn’t have completely free and democratic elections until the mid-1960s, as many Southern states used legal devices such as literacy tests and poll taxes to exclude blacks from voting.) EU member Liechtenstein did not give women the vote until 1984. Portugal didn’t lift higher education restrictions on women voters until 1976. And that bastion of liberty Switzerland didn’t allow women to vote until 1971. Yet the U.S. expects beleaguered territories like the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, crawling with fanatics, jihadists, fundamentalists, and suicide bombers, and with no history of democracy to speak of, to hold free and democratic elections overnight.
The rush toward free elections has almost never worked — with perhaps the exception of South Africa. Though it is only a matter of time before a racist, corrupt demagogue (and accused rapist) like the ANC’s Jacob Zuma — whose theme song includes the line, “Bring me my machine gun” — gains power there too.
As the conflict escalated this week Abbas again reached for Dr. Cure-all’s Magic Elixir, saying Hamas will not be allowed to rejoin the “Palestinian family” until it agrees to “new elections,” while Mustafa Barghouti, former information minister in the Palestinian unity government, told the Washington Post that we are now seeing “the gradual dissolution of the Palestinian Authority. The only way to avoid this is to hold new national elections.”
This week the Bush Administration promised to support the Abbas government with food, cash, guns, silk stockings, and what all, but especially with new elections. Perhaps for the next round the CIA can lock Jimmy Carter away in a closet somewhere and rig the elections, but that’s unlikely. A more likely outcome is another sweeping victory for Hamas.
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