By Robert Seibert
Hummus; Hamas; Hmmm… Mmmm….?
How sharp the sword of democracy. Four times in the past few months, Middle Eastern voters, at the insistence and encouragement of the United States, have returned disappointing results.
In elections widely regarded as “sufficiently” clean and fair, the voters in Iran, Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine have handed U.S. interests stunning setbacks.
In Iran, in an election widely expected to return moderate political leader Hafshemi Rafsanjani to the presidency, a virtual unknown and decidedly more conservative nationalist, Mahmoud Amadinezad, was elected. He promptly reasserted Iran’s intent to continue down the road of nuclear development and attempted, with less success, to undo the steps toward social and economic moderation achieved by his predecessor.
In Iraq, under direct U.S. supervision and security, the Iranian electorate empowered a Shi’a slate with a clear “sympathy” for Iran, an election that may return Prime Minister Jafaari, the head of the Dawa Party, to the most key post in Iraq’s new government. Sectarian violence is likely not far behind.
In Lebanon, an election following the “voluntary” withdrawal of Syrian forces failed to consolidate the power of the anti-Syrian factions. And, in a clear rebuke to American interests, the hard-line Hizbullah list, long described as a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel, won a substantial bloc of seats in the new legislature. Hizbullah won a measure of legitimacy and influence that ensures its presence in the legal government of Lebanon.
Finally, in an election that Israel and the U.S. assumed would provide a mantle of legitimacy to Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah party, Hamas confounded the pundits and won the election outright. As we go to press, a new Palestinian government, organized by the political wing of Hamas, is taking over the “government” of Gaza and the West Bank.
There are more than a few inconsistencies, of course. At least 10% of the new Palestinian legislators are languishing in Israeli prisons, from where they conducted their campaigns. And a large percentage of the remaining Palestinian legislators have done serious time in jail, most under the conditions of “administrative detention,” uncharged and untried for months and years on end.
There is persistant public speculation that Israel and the U.S. will try to undermine this new government, at the least by withholding financial support, or by supporting the opposition, as in Iran and Iraq, or by overt military intervention.
This may or may not be true, and the U.S. denies it. But heavyweight columnists like the New York Times’ Thomas Friedman credit it enough to editorialize against it. Any failure of Palestinian self-governance, he argues, should be clearly a consequence of Palestinian actions, not decisions in Tel Aviv or Washington. The unintended consequences of such a failure would be unimaginable.
But of course, the thought of nationalist Iranians, Iraqi Dawas, Lebanese Hizbullites and Palestinian Hamasists prevailing in free elections is pretty unthinkable anyway, right? They are, at least in the popular opinions of Israel, the U.S. and the rest of the west, terrorist organizations, right?
Who on earth would vote for a terrorist to represent them? Why would they?
The answer, of course, is that all of these parties and organizations are much more than simple terrorists. They are all organizations that present multiple identities and realities to their constituents.
Context means a lot.
It is a cliché, but it contains more than a grain of truth: One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. There are more to these organizations than we are generally aware.
They are, in the view of their supporters, much more than simple terrorists. They are more likely perceived as the political resistance, fighting against oppression or foreign control of their lands. Yes, they commit violent acts, but acts of resistance or reprisal, not acts of fundamental purposeless violence. This is a point of view not often voiced in our country, particularly after 9/11.
But it is a point of view taken for granted in many countries around the world. Those countries are nearly opaque to our gaze. Their histories and traditions are largely closed to us. We will not, cannot see.
Take for example, Hamas. There are things about Hamas that we simply do not see. For example, we do not see or understand the social work of this organization. The schools, hospitals and orphanages that they support are not on our radar. But these institutions are highly visible to the Palestinians of Gaza and the West Bank, who rely on them to educate their children, bind their wounds, and provide for public order.
The dominant image of Hamas in Palestine is the social worker, not the warrior. Our failure to recognize this reality blinds us to the base of support that carried Hamas to victory in those recent elections. Whatever shortcoming Hamas may have, and they may be legion, nobody, but nobody accuses them of corruption. Nobody believes they are in it for the money. The same is not true of the P.A. or Fatah.
There is a history invisible to us. While the PLO was in exile in Lebanon (first) and then in Tunisia (later), Hamas was creating facts on the ground in Palestine. When the Oslo accords brought the PLO back to Palestine as the Palestinian Authority, it created an immediate conflict between Hamas and the PLO. The PLO received the guns and money. Hamas continued its practical work, both in relief and resistance.
There has always been tension between these two organizations. I had the privilege to travel in Israel and Palestine in 1991, fairly early in the Intifadah and during a period of time in which the U.S. attempted to bring both Israel and the Palestinians to the bargaining table. Our delegation was able to meet with both PLO and Hamas representatives.
Before you rush to call the approriate authorities and turn me in for treason, let me asssure you that we were only a few days behind Sec’y of State James Baker who met with the same representatives. And in the same places. It was all above board, you see. The idea, simplicity in itself, was that if you could get the Israelis and the Palestinians to sit down and talk together, you could make peace between them. A noble idea. And they did eventually sit down near each other, if not exactly together, in Madrid. They didn’t make peace, however.
Our meetings took place in a Gaza villa named the Marna House. We were to meet first with representatives of the PLO for an hour or so. And then we were to meet with representatives of Hamas, for a similar meeting. The first meeting went off as scheduled.
The PLO representatives were well-presented, courteous and well-spoken. They were steadfast in their demands for the return of their lands and rights. They made their pitch, we asked our questions, and then we waited for the Hamas representatives to arrive.
We waited for hours…three of them to be exact, and still no Hamas representatives appeared. After three hours, the PLO deputation left. Immediately, the Hamas delegation appeared. They refused, they made it clear, to share any platform with the despised, corrupt, secular and incompetent PLO.
Their presentation to our group was impressive for its passion and commiment. They clearly combined the elements of resistance, political reform and religion in a single body. Their contempt for Fatah and the PLO was complete. It seemed clear to us that these two groups were not destined to cooperate in any meaningful way. And to this day, they have not.
Analysts of the election are insistent in their contention that the voters endorsed Hamas as a way to reject what they saw as the corruption and incompetence of Fatah. They did not vote for Hamas as a religious party and they do not expect Hamas to attempt to establish a theocracy in Gaza and the West Bank.
In other words, the voters expect Hamas to transform itself into responsible, honest government.
Put in another way, the voters expect Hamas to become Hummus, the political equivalent of that succulent Arab dish, a delicious confection of garbanzo beans, garlic and other delights, welcomed and enjoyed around the globe.
Can this be done? Can Hamas become Hummus…Hmmm?
It has been done before. Terrorist/resistance/freedomfighting organizations have transformed themselves over time into respectable governments. A couple of examples can’t hurt: the United States; Israel.
Israel? Yes, Israel. Only 60 years ago Zionist organizations like the Stern Gang and Irgun were widely condemned as terrorists. Great Britain had a reward out for the arrest and imprisonment of Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir right up until their elections as prime minister. So yes, even terrorists can be rehabilitated.
No one should understand that better than Israel and the U.S. We’ve been there ourselves.
It’s a time for constructive engagement, not obstruction and subterfuge. Hamas may let us down, but there is an equally realistic case that they may rise to the occasion. There are already indications that they are ready to abandon their call for the destruction of Israel. There is evidence that they are willing to try to shut down the suicide bombings and rocket attacks.
It will be hard to do in the face of continued assassination of their leaders and the impoverishment of their government.
It is time for statesmanship, leadership, on both sides of the conflict.
Wouldn’t that taste great?