On Their Own Merits

No one should be making any assumptions about the Palestinians’ hearts and minds in coming up with policy.

Well, here's what happens when you undermine an elected government and the people's will. The Palestinian leadership has been stymied and ineffectual for months. Fatah and Hamas have been at one another's throats. Finally, Hamas threw down the gauntlet, rebelled and broke ranks with the three-month-old unity government, taking over Gaza by force. They've secured their hold, looted Fatah buildings, and sent the opposing militia running to Egypt-all clear victories. How long-lived these triumphs however, is another matter altogether. The forecast looks bleak, but that may be premature. Rather, we may be getting a second chance to see if Hamas will self-destruct.

Right after the elections that should have brought Hamas to power, there was good argument to be made that left to their own devices, Hamas would neither be able to govern nor to keep the support of the people. Arguably, Hamas was voted in not for what they were, but for what they were not. They were not the corrupt old guard that provided Palestinians little in the way of economic opportunity, education and basic social services, while feeding their coffers at the people's expense. But as rulers, no longer would Hamas be able to come swooping in angelic, providing when and where the government failed. Rather, they would have to be consistent and be true to the populist vision that brought them power. It's one thing to provide social services while on the fringes of functioning society, quite another to rule day in and day out. Quite likely, having had no real governing experience, Hamas would have floundered. And the likely push to enact Islamic law may well have alienated the more secular majority of Palestinians. We never had the chance to see that happen.

Now that Hamas has some independent control of Gaza, Israel wants to seal it off to stem the bloodletting. The Israelis (and potentially the United States) also see this as a moment of pure opportunity. The Palestinian government has been at a standstill since the elections as foreign aid and Israeli taxes have been held at bay because Hamas refused to recognize Israel's right to exist. Israel now looks to be proposing to give all this money to Fatah, who will, in principle, be able to save the day in the West Bank and solidify their hold on power there while Hamas struggles penniless but well-armed in Gaza.

In Israel's wildest dreams, Fatah proves itself to be the only party capable of rule and the Palestinians rush to their side. This is doubtful. But if we have learned anything from our failures, it is that Hamas will succeed or fail only on its own merits. No matter how little Hamas is given, no matter how much opposition from the West, Hamas has survived. Until we allow the space for Hamas to stand (or fall) on its own, we may well squander our only chance at dislodging the extremist elements of the party from power.

Justine A. Rosenthal is executive editor of The National Interest.