The good news from the occupied territories is that Hamas won the elections. As opposed to what the chorus of national intimidation–speaking in one voice from Benjamin Netanyahu to Ami Ayalon–is saying, the political change in Palestine could be good news. Not that the victory of an extremist religious organization is not without dangers and problems, and that a secular, moderate and uncorrupt movement would have been preferable. But, in its absence, one can find quite a few points of light in the Hamas victory.
First, these are very authentic results, achieved through elections that were respectably democratic, even though they took place under the least democratic circumstances imaginable, the occupation. As usual, we were threatened by our experts with “anarchy,” and, as usual, the Palestinians did not meet those expectations. There was no shooting and no rioting; the Palestinian nation had its say with admirable order. It said “no” to a movement that did not bring it any achievements in the just struggle against the occupation, and it said “yes” to those who appeared to the voters to be braver and with clean hands. The religious issue was set aside: Most of the Palestinians, it can be safely said, don’t want a religious state; they want a free state.
Second, both Israelis and Palestinians can learn important lessons from the results of the election. The Israelis have to finally learn that applying force will not get the desired results. On the contrary. In recent years, until the tahadiyeh, the lull, there wasn’t a month that went by in which we did not hear about the elimination of another “senior” Hamas official. From assassination to assassination, the movement o nly grew in strength. The conclusion: Force is not the answer.
The Palestinians also have to learn that it was the moderation of the movement that led them to victory. Hamas did not win because of terror attacks, it largely won despite the terror. It has been moderating in recent months, changing its skin, agreeing to a lull that has lasted since November 2004. During all that, its power only grew. As opposed to the fragmented Fatah, whose heads have no control over what happens on the ground, when Hamas wants, not even a toy gun gets fired. The few terror attacks of the past few months were not the handwork of the violent and murderous group we knew. This is an important lesson. Only Hamas can truly fight terror. The war Israel waged against terror, with its innumerable assassinations, demolitions, arrests and detentions, has been far less effective than one judicious decision by the heads of Hamas.
There’s more good news. Only the right can do it? If that view is true, if only people of the right can bring peace, like Ariel Sharon on our side, then we are now facing a new chance that should not be missed. A peace deal with Hamas will be a lot more stable and viable than any agreement we sign with the PLO, if Hamas were to oppose it. Hamas can make concessions where Fatah would never dare. In any case, the Hamas that forms the government won’t be the Hamas that sends suicide bombers. The comparison to international terror organizations is also nonsense: Hamas is a movement fighting for limited national goals. If Israel were to reach out to the extremists among its enemies, then maybe it can reach a real agreement that would put an end to the tumor of the occupation and the curse of terror.
To that end, both sides, Israel and Hamas, must free themselves of the slogans of the past. Those who pose preconditions, like disarming Hamas, will miss the chance. It is impossible to expect that Hamas will disarm, just as it is impossible to expect that Israel would disarm. In Palesti nian eyes, Hamas’ weapons are meant to fight the occupation, and, as is well-known, the occupation is not over. Practically, and indeed morally, the armed are armed if they are equipped with F-16s or Qassam launchers. If Israel were to commit to an end to killing Hamas operatives, there is reason to assume that Hamas would agree, at least for a while, to lay down its arms. The months of tahadiyeh proved that, even when Israel did not cease its own fire. In the coming months, the risk of terror attacks will be further reduced: A movement that wants to consolidate its regime and win international recognition will not be busy with terror. Nor will it allow Islamic Jihad to steal the show.
Now is the time to reach out to Hamas, which is desperate for international, and particularly American, recognition, and knows that such recognition goes through Israel. If Israel were to be friendly toward Hamas, it could benefit. Not that Hamas will all at once give up its extremist demands and its unrealistic dreams, but it will know, as some of its leaders have already declared, to set them aside if it serves their interests. Israel, which in any case did not speak with Yasser Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas, now has an opportunity for surprise. Instead of wasting more years with rejectionism, at the end of which we’ll sit down with Hamas in any case, let us reach out now to this extremist group, which was democratically elected. Israel has nothing to lose from such an approach. We’ve already seen the achievements of the hand that assassinates and demolishes, uproots and jails, we’ve already seen those policies fulfilled in front of our eyes: Hamas won the elections.
GIDEON LEVY writes for Ha’aretz.