Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hamas and the Palestinian Elections, Part 2

So, Hamas has won a majority of seats in the Palestinian legislature. As I have previously argued, I do not believe that this is the political disaster that some make it out to be. Hamas now has legitimate and significant political power. What would Hamas stand to gain by continuing the war against Israel? What would Hamas stand to lose? It seems to me that scales are tilted towards costs.

Hamas has always shown more of an interest in the nitty-gritty of governance than has the PLO/PA, be it under Arafat or Abbas. Hamas has done much more than has Fatah to root out corruption and to improve social services, which explains the surprising, sweeping parliamentary victory. But the act of governing will transform the situation. When Hamas was a shadowy organization conducting a terrorist insurgency, Israel's options were limited. Targets were hard to find, and there was little to threaten other than the lives of the leaders and the militants. But now Hamas will look much more like a state, meaning that there will be a better chance of creating deterrence. Hamas will have to build social institutions, sit in the parliament and mayoral/gubernatorial houses, and openly campaign to win future elections. If Israel needs to retaliate, there will have much more concrete targets than before. Hamas will not likely be willing to forfeit and sacrifice the political power that it has so difficultly wrested away from Fatah.

Now, I will not be surprised if I'm wrong, but I do expect that Hamas will behave itself and restrain its violent campaign against Israel. There will be, of course, more suicide attacks against Israeli citizens. They will be carried out by Islamic Jihad, Hamas (either by the organization itself or by rogue members upset with Hamas' new course), and maybe even Fatah, which quite possibly may conclude it needs to return to violence to re-gain its political stature. Moving the peace process forward will require great patience on both sides. Israel must be willing to give Hamas the opportunity to transform itself into a real political party. And Hamas must realize, as I believe it has, that this opportunity is the road to best outcome that Hamas could actually achieve: governing an independent Palestinian state.

UPDATE: I am happy to announce that I am not alone in my optimistic outlook on the victory by Hamas. Gary Becker agrees with me. Nothing like have a Nobel laureate in your corner.


kiwilawblawg said...

I think you are misinterpreting the situation. You seem to assume that Palestinians have some sort of democratic upbringing and that democracy will infact prevail over other forms of governance and leadership. You are also assuming that an Arab government would not act against Israel openly - despite numerous examples in the past by other Arab governments. I think your predictions are a bit too optimistic. They may, perhaps, turn out to be true ten years from now. Much water, and blood, will unfortunately flow under the bridge until then.

Seth Weinberger said...

I do not, in any way, assume that the Palestinians are democratic nor that democracy will prevail. But this has nothing to do with democracy. All I assume is that Hamas, as an organization, is a rational actor that wants to maximize its utility and that will assess, evaluate, and respond to prevailing incentives. Rationality does not mean infalibility as actors can make bad decisions. (The rational actor model is a standard assumption of political science) What it does mean is that Hamas is not crazy. If Israel can create the conditions of deterrence, Hamas can be shown what is the best path to realize their goals. The USSR wasn't democratic, and yet it responded to US deterrence strategies by restraining its behavior, just as Hitler reacted to British and French appeasment with aggression.

The question really comes down to what you believe Hamas really wants. If you believe that Hamas really truly has the destruction of Israel as its goals, then deterrence probably won't work and the elections are very bad for peace. I don't believe that. I believe that Hamas wants to gain political power and rule. They want the destruction of Israel like I want a Ferrari: it would be great in a perfect world, but I don't work 20 hours a day and save every penny to buy one, nor did I even choose the career that maximizes my income. Hamas has used violence to leverage themselves into a political process that excluded them and has used the rhetoric of Israel's destruction to win popular support. But Hamas has behaved rationally in the past. In the 1990s, when the peace process was new and extremely fragile, Hamas would routinely carry out suicide attacks just to the point where the peace process was about to collapse, and then stop to allow things to resume. Hamas has observed an almost-year-long truce. What I believe is that it will now be easier for Israel to create the proper deterrent conditions with Hamas, now that Hamas has a stake in the governing of the Palestinian "state." Just ask yourself: What does Hamas stand to gain by starting a war with Israel and what do they stand to lose?

I'm not sure what you mean that I assume "that an Arab government would not act against Israel openly." If you would care to clarify that, I'd be happy to respond.