TOPICS > Politics

Hamas Faces Uncertain Future

January 27, 2006 at 12:00 AM EST
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JEFFREY BROWN: We pick up on some of these [regional] issues now with: Samar Assad, executive director of the Palestine Center, a Washington organization that focuses on Arab-Israeli issues– she was raised in Ramallah in the West Bank; Robert Malley served on the National Security Council staff in the Clinton administration — he’s Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization; and Israeli Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, a former top aide to Israel’s defense minister– he’s currently on leave as a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Welcome to all of you.

Samar Assad, let’s start with the why question. Why did Hamas win?

SAMAR ASSAD: Well, there are several reasons for the Hamas win, mainly due to Fatah’s inability to deliver both on the domestic and international level.

The good number of votes that Hamas got in this election were actually protest votes, protests against Fatah; they were protests for Hamas’s social welfare programs and also a vote for their fighting spirit, and not so much or the small percentage for their ideology.

And I think that Hamas needs to take that into consideration and understand that and the desires of the Palestinian people for a negotiated settlement, a two-state settlement negotiated through Israel and that the majority of their votes did come as a protest vote.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gen. Herzog, how do you see it? Is it anti-Fatah or pro Hamas?

BRIG. GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: I think this is essentially a protest vote against what is perceived as corrupt, dysfunctional, ineffective leadership of both Fatah and the PA. People were disillusioned. They came to the conclusion that this leadership, the historic leadership and the current leadership can’t look after their needs.

And they decided to vote for a change, and they voted for Hamas not because they support its ideology of a one-state solution but more because they believe Hamas could deliver. Hamas is perceived as clean, uncorrupt and a possible solution.

JEFFREY BROWN: How do you see it? This question of the ideology of Hamas, how is it defined there for Palestinian voters do you think?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, I think the ideology, as we’ve just heard, is a part of it. And the defiance and the protest vote — this is a typical protest vote in a very atypical situation, a situation of occupation. And so the defiance and the rejection is of corruption, is of bad management, of is poor living conditions.

It’s also of the peace process as they’ve experienced it for the last ten years and that part of the Hamas ideology that says the international community has not helped us. And everything that has happened over the last ten years has not changed our lives.

Your vote is a protest against that as well. And that’s the part that President Bush didn’t insist on. Yes, it is a rejection of the PA; it is also a rejection of the way the peace process has been handled for the last decade.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, staying with you, if you look at it that way, then what does Hamas stand for in voting for Hamas?

ROBERT MALLEY: It really doesn’t stand for anything concrete — or it stands for everything. I mean, it is a catch-all party, and so you have people who are voting for it because it promises better government or because of the religious aspect as well, which is important for some of the core constituency of Hamas.

But when it comes to the peace process it is simply a sense I got from being there the last few days, a sense everything else hasn’t worked. Hamas is promising us something better. We’re simply going to show the world that we’ve had enough with the way we’ve been treated so far.

But I don’t think they have a clear, concrete path in their minds or even in the program that Hamas has put forward of how they get from where they are to where they want to go.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Assad how do you answer that? What is the — does there — is there a clear path that Hamas has put forward?

SAMAR ASSAD: Oh, I think it’s put a clear path on domestic issues in the way it’s going to reform Palestinian society as they say they want to do on issues of health, education and social welfare.

I don’t think that they have a clear political platform yet because I don’t think that they felt they needed to. I think that they felt that they could hold on to their hard line positions because they, themselves were surprised with this landslide victory.

I think that they expected to get enough votes to demand these cabinet positions, the health, the security and the social welfare, to be a strong opposition and not have to deal with posts that require contact or direct involvement with both international community and Israel.

However, now that they have come from an organization that has been completely outside government institutions, government branches into an organization or a group that is now in full control and they need to take this time, these coming month or two from now after the election being able to form a political — a cabinet which now they have openly actually said that they are interested in a partnership and that they do not want monopoly over power, but simply because they need — they need the others. The question is who is going to enter this partnership with Hamas.

Fatah has said no. And I think that in some ways it’s good for Fatah to stay away from politics right now because it needs to put its house in order and try to form a strong and credible opposition. So it’s going to take its time by trying to form a government. It’s going to wait for the Israeli elections in March for those results.

It’s going to wait for the Israeli group or party that is going to come into power to form a government. So that is going to buy them buy them some time for them, I think, to negotiate within themselves from those leaders inside the occupied territories and those leaders of their political bureau outside the Palestinian territories to come with a clear political message that they now have to present to the Palestinian people.

JEFFREY BROWN: Gen. Herzog, in thinking about those issues that were just raised and looking forward, help us to understand who is Hamas. What kind of leadership does it have? What kind of structure; when we talk of Hamas, what do we mean?

BRIG. GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: Hamas is an Islamist movement that addresses national Palestinian issues and aspirations from a religious Islamist point of view. Throughout the years since their establishment in 1987, they developed two basic arms, one, the military arm to carry out Jihad against Israel, and the other social arm, the Dawah. They run very well developed social welfare programs, a network of charities and so on, which help them garner support within the Palestinian population.

Their leadership, there is one leadership in the Palestinian territories, which makes decisions on all matters both terror matters, political issues, social issues and so on but there is also an external leadership in Damascus, Khaled Mashaal and his kind, and by the way there is talk now that some of them may enter the Palestinian Authority and join with the internal leadership to make decisions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Malley, do you see it as an organization that should we think of it as has different wings? Is there a moderate wing, is there an extremist wing, particularly, of course, vis-à-vis the questions of what’s in the charter regarding Israel?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, I think two things: Number one, yes, there are different constituencies it has to cater too. And part of it as the general just said it has two antecedents; its deep antecedent is in the Muslim brotherhood which was established in Egypt but existed in Palestine from the early 20th Century and Hamas itself is a derivative of that. And the other part is Hamas as a violent organization that is dedicated to fighting Israel. Both of those coexist.

And you have constituencies that are close to one or the other stance of Hamas but you also have divisions between Gaza and the West Bank, between the inside and outside and as you say between a more pragmatic wing which has been the one you have seen much more on television screens and interviews over the period of this campaign, and the more radical wing, and how Hamas manages to straddle those two and to keep everyone together, because it is a very disciplined organization, it makes decisions by consensus. It’s not a one-man show. And the proof of that is that during the Intifada, this last Intifada, they lost virtually their entire historic leadership. And, despite that, they have not only grown stronger but now are the strongest Palestinian organization.

JEFFREY BROWN: Ms. Assad, do you see this as an organization that given the reigns of power now can change, is flexible enough?

SAMAR ASSAD: I think that it will have to change. I think that it’s proven to be an organization that has always said that it will abide by the desires of the Palestinian people. And if the majority of the Palestinian people, as we know from polls and throughout, want a two-state solution and believe that the best way to achieve that is through negotiations, a majority of them do feel that the Palestinian people are the ones who suffer as a result of any military action, that the Palestinians carry out because the Israeli response is much more stronger.

I think that they would find themselves if they want to succeed and prove that they could lead the people and the government better than Fatah has, they would have to change.

JEFFREY BROWN: Are you as hopeful, Gen. Herzog, that there is the possibility for change?

BRIG. GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: I’m not as hopeful because I think the most you can expect in the foreseeable future is temporary restraint, some tactical adjustments, so on.

But for an organization like Hamas with such an extreme ideology and an organization bent on violence, I think historic precedents show that for them to change their ideology or disarm, these processes take years, sometimes decades. An organization like Hamas would abandon violence or change, moderate their ideology only under tremendous pressure, and I just don’t see these conditions existing in the Palestinian context.

So you may have a temporary restraint, an extended cease-fire, some tactical adjustments. But I don’t pin my hopes on more — much more than that in the foreseeable future.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mr. Malley, you said you had just come back from the region. These demonstrations that we saw today with Fatah, does that imply some kind of extended clash within the Palestine territories?

ROBERT MALLEY: I think the biggest risk right now is Palestinian-on-Palestinian violence. And ironically Hamas is suffering from the scope of its victory. It didn’t expect it. I don’t think it wanted it. It is what one could call another version of a catastrophic success.

They now find themselves alone in power facing a Fatah that is disgruntled, upset and angry and they now have to deal with all the challenges they were hoping to avoid. They were hoping to be in the back seat and letting Fatah and the Palestinian Authority take some of the more controversial decisions vis-à-vis Israel and be the face of the Palestinian Authority to the international community while they dealt with social issues, health issues, education.

Now they are naked; they’re in front of their own people; they’re in front of the international community. And the risk there is there will be growing clashes between Fatah, which doesn’t want to have anything to do with this, and actually wants Hamas to fail and Hamas which may fear and feel that Fatah is trying to deprive it of the fruits of its victory.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, Ms. Assad, how much do you fear this kind of internal Palestinian clash?

SAMAR ASSAD: It is a fear. And it’s very unfortunate, the events that happened in Gaza and in Ramallah. And it’s unfortunate that Hamas — that Fatah is dealing with its loss in this manner. I think that if Fatah wanted — who is now demanding the resignation of its leadership due to corruption and feeling that that is why they failed these elections, they should have demanded that long before, actually years ago, I mean not through these means.

But they should have demanded the resignation and the accountability among its corrupt leaderships and reformed itself well before it went into these elections. It cannot now demand this after the election.

JEFFREY BROWN: A brief last word Gen. Herzog, do you see an extended period of clashes coming?

BRIG. GEN. MICHAEL HERZOG: Yes, I think that’s — that’s likely because Fatah dominated the Palestinian Authority for decades. They’ve been dominating the PA since its inception in 1994. And I think it’s not easy for them to give up all the benefits; they actually make up the bureaucracy, the leadership and so on.

So I think we’re in for a period of instability within the PA, kind of a transitional period until they work out their differences. I don’t expect the civil war; I don’t think any of the parties want a civil war but we are definitely into a period of instability. And we may see the Hamas-won PA, which is as dysfunctional as the Fatah-won PA. That might be the consequences of these elections.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Michael Herzog, Robert Malley, Samar Assad, thank you all very much.