Palestinian elections in the West Bank: An opportunity for Fatah AND Israel

There has been talk of legislative and presidential elections in the West Bank, which would occur in September. This is an opportunity for Fatah to strengthen its mandate. It is also an opportunity for Israel. The reason? Hamas is refusing to go along with elections. This is good news for moderates for two reasons:
  1. Hamas cannot come to power in the West Bank if it does not run. The idea of Hamas actually coming to power there gives Israelis chills.
  2. It shows Palestinians that Hamas is not a viable alternative. Hamas's failure to hold elections lays bare its lack of democratic credentials.
If done right, then, the Palestinian Authority can show that it is the legitimate representative of the people, at least in the West Bank, while calling Hamas's credibility into question, including within the Gaza Strip. Israel and the West would do well to support free and fair elections and to respect their outcome. The alternative would likely be Palestinian unrest caused by an increasing sense that their (nominal) government is not respecting their wishes. This would be bad news for Israel, too.

What happens if Hamas, recognizing that it is being shown up, decides to hold elections in the Gaza Strip and to campaign in the West Bank? This is Israel's nightmare scenario, ending with Hamas winning both Palestinian territories. It doesn't have to end that way, however. It is not certain that Hamas would win. Israel and the West cannot continue with the cognitive dissonance of claiming to support democracy and human rights and then refusing to recognize elected governments, however.

This does not mean it should sit idly by. Many Western governments provide financial support to Fatah in the West Bank. They should continue to do so to support its campaign there, while underlining Hamas's failings. Concessions from Israel would help put Fatah in a better light as well. Isn't this outside influence just another form of meddling in "free" elections? Yes, but the choice and power would still be with the voters in the end. Under normal circumstances, this sort of meddling would be unacceptable, but these are not normal circumstances, I think we can all agree.

What if Hamas participated and won both territories? I'm not sure how likely that is, especially if other things are done right. Still, it is a possibility. One positive result would be Palestinian unity that would give Hamas a stake in the outcome of talks regarding all Palestinian land. Sure, this strengthening of their position would by default mean a weakening of Israel's. I would note, however, that Hamas has actually done a good job of keeping violence at bay in the Gaza Strip and promoting stability there. Hamas's rhetoric is still horridly anti-Israeli and sounds dangerous. It would be naive to underestimate this. Still, we are seeing an age-old effect: once the terrorist-insurgent group becomes a government, it has a stake in stability and non-violence. Controlling a state tends to have a moderating effect if one looks past rhetoric.

Why? It's hard to threaten an insurgent group. Invade? Big deal. We're guerrilla fighters and want to bring down the state anyway! That would only HELP us! If a group controls a country, however, the calculus looks decidedly different. Now there is someone who can answer for misdeeds who is a legitimate representative of the people there. They can be held to account more easily.

There are dangers, but the situation will only get more heated over time anyway. It's not now or never, but it is now or at some-unexpected-and-inconvenient-time-in-the-future-selected-by-revolutionaries. It's a choice between risky but principled vs. dangerous and fiery-ideological. I know what I'd pick...


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