Hamas' Electoral Victory and the Upcoming Israeli Elections

 

A Panel Discussion Featuring Dr. Shai Feldman, Dr. Menachem Klein, Ghaleb Darabya, and Dr. Daniel Terris Moderating

The recent illness of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, combined with the ascent of Hamas in the January 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, have created an earthquake across the political landscape of the Middle East. In a panel discussion on February 13, 2006, experts on the region discussed the issues raised by the recent developments in Israel and Palestine, and what the future might hold for the upcoming Israeli elections.

The panel included Shai Feldman, Director of the Crown Center for Middle East Studies at Brandeis; Menachem Klein, Senior Lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Israel; and Ghaleb Darabya, a former member of the Palestinian Foreign Ministry and currently a Mason Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government.

Feldman characterized Israel's current position as a "realignment of Israeli politics," saying that public opinion there has shifted away from where it was in the 1970s, 80s, and early 90s. During that time, Feldman said, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war loomed large in the minds of the Israeli public, splitting it over the major questions of war and peace so that neither of the large parties could form a governing coalition.

Recent events -- including the construction of the security wall -- have eased concerns of a large-scale attack. The result is a majority of 60-65% of the public that wants to continue disengagement from controlling the Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza Strip, and East Jerusalem. Feldman stated that the March 28 elections will reflect that shift in perspective.

Darabya began his remarks with the reminder that no one, including Hamas, anticipated the outcome of the Palestinian parliamentary elections. He attributed the victory to both internal and external elements. Internally, the ruling Fatah party had failed to provide real leadership and address corruption in the government; externally, the peace process with Israel had not produced the expected results, and the voters wanted change. "Fatah managed to defeat Fatah," said Darabya. "Therefore, Hamas has won."

Darabya blamed Israel for what he called a continued policy of undermining and strategically destroying the Palestinian Authority. He said Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas never received the ncessary support from Israel in his quest to help his people and further the peace process.

The challenge now facing Hamas is to form a government that represents a majority of Palestine. Though Hamas has historically called for the destruction of Israel, Darabya believes they will change to accommodate this new role. He added that it will be important for Hamas to be acknowedged by the western world as a party to the politics of the Middle East and not as an extremist or fringe movement. "Avoiding them will force them to turn to Iran and other forces, which will have severe consequences for the Arab-Israeli conflict."

Klein agreed that Hamas' victory was due largely to voter disenchantment with Fatah, and with the assertion that Abbas was ineffective as a president. However, he believes that Hamas was not fully prepared for the victory it won, and it will have to shift its role from minority opposition to majority representation.

He also said Israel will have to analyze its disengagement strategy more closely in the coming years. "Disengagement is not just a security strategy, it's a mentality," said Klein. "It goes beyond security. The Israeli people wrongly thought they could disengage and disregard what's going on. The shock (of the election) was great in Israel because they could not turn their eyes from what's going on in Palestine."

The issues and questions raised by these three experts will no doubt continue to be debated both inside the Middle East and beyond. The Feb. 13 panel was only the beginning of the conversation, a conversation that Brandeis will revisit in the months and years to come.

This event was sponsored by the Malkin/Slifka Scholars, The Crown Center for Middle East Studies, and The International Center for Ethics, Justice and Public Life.