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Hamas Wins Palestinian Authority Elections

January 26, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SIMON MARKS: Fatah supporters took to the streets of Ramallah last night to celebrate a victory that was not theirs. The exit polls got it wrong. The faction founded by the late Yasser Arafat had not, in fact, won a narrow victory. Instead, it was roundly defeated by the radical Islamic organization Hamas.

And by day, it was Hamas supporters who were jamming the streets. Running in their first national electoral outing, Hamas candidates won a huge victory, securing 76 seats to Fatah’s 43 in the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Hamas voters descended on the council building, tore down the Palestinian flag and flew their own Islamic banner, underscoring the end to Fatah’s ten-year dominance of government here.

Bowing to the inevitable, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia resigned and urged President Mahmoud Abbas, himself a member of Fatah, to invite Hamas to form a government. Hamas leaders declared themselves ready.

ISMAIL HANIYEH, Hamas Leader (Translated): Hamas movement thanks the president and his interest in implementing these elections and his desire for these elections to be the gate to strengthen the national unity and to strengthen the political system based on political pluralism.

SIMON MARKS: Hamas leaders said today they are interested in what they called a political partnership with Fatah. But it’s unclear whether that will extend to offering cabinet seats to Fatah members. Some Fatah officials said they now want their party to go into opposition and heal the internal divisions that may have cost it this election.

The Hamas victory is a seismic shift in the politics of the Palestinian Authority, its relationship with Israel and the broader Middle East. Branded a terrorist organization for leading an armed struggle aimed at destroying the state of Israel, it has now scored an upset victory that puts its hands firmly on the levers of power. The consequences of that were being hotly debated in Jerusalem today.

HIRSH GOODMAN, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies: I don’t think anything that happens in the Palestinian territories could shock Israelis; we’re beyond shock.

SIMON MARKS: Liberal Israeli intellectual Hirsh Goodman told the NewsHour’s Margaret Warner that the election results could present his country with an opportunity.

HIRSH GOODMAN: Israel is going to be watching the music very carefully. And one thing about Hamas, first of all it has had a cease-fire with Israel for the last year and a half. The suicide bombers have not come from Hamas. The second thing is that they’ve always been a pragmatic party with a social agenda. And because of its pragmatism, there is a window of opportunity here. But it’s going to take a lot of people climbing down from a lot of trees and a bit of time.

SIMON MARKS: Conservatives here disagree. With Israel due to hold an election of its own in two month’s time, they say the Hamas victory should mark a formal end to a period in which Israel tried to engage with the Palestinian Authority.

A spokesman for the conservative Likud Party said Israel’s withdrawal from settlements on the Gaza Strip pushed through by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who later left the party before the stroke that left him in a coma, was the cause of the Hamas victory. When Israel flees, said a Likud spokesman, Hamas rises.

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI, The Shalem Center: Let’s stop excusing them and let’s start treating them as responsible adults.

SIMON MARKS: Analyst Yossi Klein Halevi of The Shalem Center, a Jerusalem think thank, says Israel should take a tough stand.

YOSSI KLEIN HALEVI: The Hamas government — even if it’s democratically elected — is a government that represents the random murder of over 1,000 Israelis. We will treat the democratically-elected government of Palestine as a terrorist genocidally-minded organization.

SIMON MARKS: Hardliners say the Hamas victory makes them even more determined to push for an expansion of the wall that Israel has constructed separating Palestinian villages on the West Bank from Israeli settlements.

Only yesterday, Hamas leaders said they would never negotiate a way the clause in their covenant that demands the effective destruction of Israel.

Tonight acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert convened a meeting of his top security officials to discuss the Hamas victory. And back in the Palestinian territories, intellectuals opposed to Hamas started agonizing about whether it will seek to Islamize a traditionally secular culture, reshaping not only Palestinian politics but society as well.

JIM LEHRER: More now from Margaret Warner in Jerusalem. I spoke with her earlier this evening.

JIM LEHRER: And hello, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Hi, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: Have you talked to anybody today who really expected this to happen?

MARGARET WARNER: No, no. I mean Hamas expected to do well. Fatah by the end of the campaign knew that they were in trouble. But nobody expected Hamas to win outright or the size of this win.

JIM LEHRER: Now the Israeli reaction, what can you tell us about that? There is some official word late today; what is it?

MARGARET WARNER: The official word late today came when the prime minister held about a three-hour meeting with what they call the inner cabinet of defense and foreign ministry. And I’m told that the whole bureaucracy had worked up all these big decisions they have to make. It’s not just do we talk to the Palestinians or not but I mean there are several decisions.

Do they go ahead and start dismantling the settlements as they promised? Do they start withholding the tax money from the Palestinians? I mean these two societies are really very intermingled. Do they let elected members from Gaza travel to the legislature to meet, or do they have them arrested as terrorists?

So very little of that was decided at least, I don’t know if it was decided. All they came out and said was, we will not negotiate with a government that has Hamas members in it who deny Israel’s right to exist and are terrorists.

Now I’m told that that leaves a tiny window open. I mean, if the Palestinians wanted to form a government of all technocrats; that is, in the cabinet with no Hamas members, I mean this may be very unlikely, or, of course, if Hamas were to be willing to come out and renounce its long stated positions.

The other thing is I’m told is what Israel wanted to is not completely close the door and put the ball back in the Palestinians’ court.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Now back in that court, what has — what has Hamas said today about these very issues, about its position on Israel, its willingness to negotiate and whatever?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, the interesting thing is, Jim, that they don’t have a unified command or power structure yet. And that’s been part of their strength in Gaza and in the West Bank. But they had always planned afterwards, after the election to get together and hold a big confab and have a big discussion about what to do. But they never thought they’d be dealing with this.

So you had conflicting statements, but the most interesting one in the inner Palestinian debate was the public comment from some Hamas leaders that they wanted a national unity government; they wanted a Palestinian people unified.

The people in Fatah and the Palestinian Authority say, at least the younger guards say look, they just want this as a figure leaf. One person said, they just want us to do the dirty work like continue to, as they put it, try to negotiate with the Israelis where we would have no standing.

And a lot of the younger members are saying let’s not do it; let’s go into opposition. If we stay — if we join this government, we’ll have no credibility, we’ll look totally opportunistic and we’ll give them a figure leaf, we’ll give them cover.

And in fact, one of them said to me much what Yossi Halevi said when I interviewed him this afternoon in Simon’s — in the piece Simon just did — which is, is let the Palestinian people say if Hamas can govern and let them see what they voted for.

So nothing has been decided yet. Mahmoud Abbas had a big meeting late tonight, with all the — I don’t know if it was all but a lot of the Fatah members who won. All they did was come out and essentially give the speech you and I talked about last night about, I expect the new prime minister to form this government according to my principles. I was elected president. But that leaves a lot open to question. I mean, he’s not in much position. He doesn’t have a lot of leverage at this point.

JIM LEHRER: And he also suggested that the Palestine Liberation Organization might be reactivated to negotiate with Israel rather than the new Hamas-led government. What’s that about?

MARGARET WARNER: I know, and frankly I found that totally puzzling, and I was not able to get through to anyone. I mean it’s has been just about an hour since he said that. I thought the PLO, where did the PLO come back into this?

One of the things that’s happened here, Jim, is that, I mean, both sides are reeling that the Palestinians talked about a sense of panic. The Israelis talked about disequilibrium and how jolted they were. The leading Israeli defense correspondent tonight said it was shock and awe. And one of the signs of that is that even the vaunted cell phone systems here are sort of melting down, I mean not completely, but it’s just hard to get through to people. So I frankly just can’t explain to you what that meant.

JIM LEHRER: But back to your other point about Hamas, there is no one person or one small group of people even speaking for them now at this point, correct?

MARGARET WARNER: I’m told that Mahmoud al Zahar who is becoming familiar, he is one of the three or four Gaza leaders that you often see quoted, he did call Mahmoud Abbas today but basically just to kind of open a channel of communication, and at least the two or three people I talked to did not feel he had made any kind of offer.

Basically each side within the Palestinian stand-off now is trying to decide what their position is before they can talk to one another.

JIM LEHRER: Sure. And this is going to probably take a while to sort through, correct?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, absolutely, absolutely because as I said, nobody — I think that the Israelis now feel and they’ve been in — by the way, I’m sure you’re going to report this elsewhere — were in constant communication with, you know, Washington, London, Paris.

I mean, one of the decisions they have to make is do they call on the international community to cut off funds for the Palestinian Authority. If that happens, the PA could collapse. They are already in deep money troubles.

So I mean, each side has all kinds of — it like three-dimensional chess — they have all kinds of things to decide before I think they can really negotiate with one another, even Hamas and the Palestinian Authority or Fatah.

JIM LEHRER: Finally, Margaret, because we spent so much time on it last night, why were the exit polls so wrong?

MARGARET WARNER: Well Jim, I was very glad that I’d said to you, remember exit polls in the U.S., and –

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: — let’s look the turnout.

Put briefly and not too complicated, they had this strange voting system where you go in and vote for the national list; that is easy for the pollsters to figure out.

But then you vote for local candidates. So last night I talked, for instance, yesterday at the polling, I talked to one woman, a professor who said well I voted for Fatah on the national list because I don’t want Hamas — and she had her son with her, you know, ramming — their brand of Islam down my son’s note, that is my job. But then she said, but for the local candidate I voted for — and if it was a PFLP, now that is a radical terrorist group, remember the Achille Laurel –

JIM LEHRER: Right.

MARGARET WARNER: — that’s the PFLP — so she totally canceled her vote out. That happened in a lot of places.

And if you look at why Hamas did so well, they only had a three-seat margin on the national list — I mean they still won 30-27. But they had a huge margin on the local list. And that’s because they always fielded one candidate and Fatah — because they were disciplined — and Fatah was completely undisciplined and they’d sometimes have four and five candidates in a district.

So I don’t see how any pollster could possibly track all that unless they had people in all, whatever it was, 66 districts. And that’s why I think they were so badly off. They still missed who won, even just the national list Hamas won. But if the national list were the only thing, they wouldn’t have had enough seats to be totally in charge.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Margaret, thank you very much again.

MARGARET WARNER: Thanks, Jim.