Can Hamas Be Tamed?

Courtesy Reuters


Much has happened in the decade between the first parliamentary elections for the Palestinian Authority (PA), in 1996, and the second, this year. The Oslo peace process staggered forward and then collapsed; a second Palestinian intifada raged and subsided; Israel erected a barrier fence along part of the West Bank and withdrew from Gaza; and Yasir Arafat, the founder and personification of Palestinian nationalism, passed from the scene. Meanwhile, Hamas -- the largest Islamist group in the Palestinian community -- continued its march into the political arena. Having boycotted the first elections, it campaigned vigorously in the second, and with its stunning victory in January, now stands poised to play a major role in Palestinian governance.

Hamas' involvement in the democratic process may strike many as a profound irony. After all, the group fields a private army, embraces violence as a political tool, regularly orchestrates terrorist attacks, and is dedicated to the destruction of Israel and the establishment of an Islamist state ruling the territory of Israel and the PA. Granting Hamas legitimate political status and access to the prerogatives of state power seems to be asking for trouble.

A number of optimistic observers argue, however, that this concern is overblown. It is precisely the burdens and responsibilities that come with democratic politics, they claim, that will tame Hamas. After all, as the Carnegie Endowment's Marina Ottaway wrote last summer, "There is ample evidence that participation in an electoral process forces any party, regardless of ideology, to moderate its position if it wants to attract voters in large numbers." Once trapped in a normal political mode, these observers argue, Hamas will have to answer to a more diverse array of constituencies and either deliver practical results or risk being marginalized for failing to do so. Hamas will thus effectively be forced to sheathe its sword and behave. Instead of being concerned about Hamas' new role, the optimists contend, outsiders should actually welcome it as the most likely catalyst for

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