That is the oft-repeated formulation that describes the problem with the participation of Islamist and terrorist groups in elections. They pretend to be committed to democratic politics so long as democratic politics provide a vehicle for them to take power. But the moment elections no longer favor them, they no longer favor elections.
Many have been wondering where Hamas would come down on this question since the group’s rise to power was given democratic legitimacy in the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections. It appears that we have an answer. Mahmoud Abbas, president of the PA and the leader of Fatah, has announced that he will schedule presidential and legislative elections for January 24th, 2010. Hamas’s reaction?
Salah Bardawil, a senior Hamas official in Gaza, said Abbas’ “declaration will blow away in the wind.”
Hamas’s Syrian leadership added:
“Mahmoud Abbas cannot hold elections only in the West Bank,” said Moussa Abu Marzouk, Hamas’ Syrian-based deputy political leader. “Everything he says on this subject is to put pressure on Hamas.”
So Hamas will not participate in elections, and will in fact attempt to undermine and delegitimize them. This is unsurprising to most observers of Islamist politics. But then, there are legions of westerners who counsel Israel and the United States to “engage” Hamas. To take one of many examples, here is Daniel Levy, a leading spokesman for this view:
One can’t marginalize Gaza — it’s part of the two-state solution. And we’re most certainly going to have to bring Hamas inside the tent to make this work. I think that’s doable and the first imperative for the U.S. is to leave the Palestinians to do their own internal politics, and to reconstitute their own reformed national movement.
The obvious question is: If Hamas will neither participate in elections nor temper its ambitions, how do we bring it “inside the tent”? The engagers are being either lazy or dishonest when they take as their unspoken premise that Hamas itself desires to come into the tent. What if Hamas cares more about maintaining its ideological purity and guarding its Gaza fiefdom than it does about earning good PR from the West? Indeed, isn’t it perfectly rational that Hamas should seek to protect its hard-earned sovereignty in Gaza by rejecting participation in a process whose goal is ending that sovereignty?
It is precisely the fear of becoming entangled in a system that it cannot dominate — i.e., elections or a national-unity government — that provokes Hamas’s rejectionism. As David Makovsky notes,
Surveys conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, led by Khalil Shikaki, found that current Palestinian support for Hamas stands at 28 percent, compared to 44 percent for Fatah. In fact, Hamas has not polled better than Fatah since June 2006.
The lesson here is obvious, but alas too simple for sophisticates like Levy: Hamas will not participate in elections. It will not compromise on any of its positions in order to join a national-unity government with Fatah. It will not participate in a peace process or agree to any previous Palestinian agreements. Why would it do any of these things — why would it come into “the tent” — when doing so would require the group to surrender its one great accomplishment: its control over Gaza?