Friday, January 27, 2006

What will Hamas do?

The Head Heeb blogged ... Everything that was said yesterday about balances of power obviously no longer applies. Hamas can govern if it wants, either by forcing Abbas to appoint a Hamas government or by making it impossible for a Fatah minority government to function. If there is a national unity government, as some leaders of both parties have suggested, it will be constructed largely on Hamas' terms. Abbas still has a trump card in his ability to dissolve parliament and call new elections, but using it at this juncture would be more a confession of weakness than anything else.
I believe Fatah has said it will not participate, so it will be a totally Hamas government. If Abbas does not resign, he can let Hamas try to run a government, and then dissolve parliament and call for a new election when they are the weakest, but I suspect Abbas will be forced to resign.
This makes Hamas' internal debate all the more important. The faction will have to choose what to do with its power: whether to accept the Oslo framework and move toward negotiations with Israel, or whether to lay Oslo to rest and potentially declare unilateral independence. Before the election, some Hamas leaders were suggesting that the party might avoid confronting the issue head-on by taking the social welfare ministries and letting Abbas handle diplomacy, but this will be harder to do as a majority party than as a junior partner in a national unity coalition.

I'm not sure that even the Hamas leadership counted on getting this far, so the party itself may not know which alternative it will choose. It may also be that the election has changed Hamas' internal balance of power in addition to the political balance within the PA. Hamas' assumption of office in a Palestinian political entity may give the local leadership an independent political foothold and strengthen it at the expense of the hard-line expatriates, especially since many of the elected representatives will be from the relatively moderate West Bank party organizations. Just as Fatah is in rebellion against its old-guard Tunisian leadership, Hamas may now escape the tutelage of its Syrians. On the other hand, the internal debate may result in the parliamentary delegation becoming an instrument through which Khaled Meshaal's hard-liners exert influence. We're not going to know for some time.

A Hamas victory will also affect Israeli politics more than the strong second-place finish that was expected this time yesterday. All the same, barring a resumption of large-scale violence, I doubt that its impact will be decisive. Likud now has a new campaign issue and the center will probably lose some ground to the right, but most of Kadima's voters are already convinced that there is no Palestinian negotiating partner, and Hamas' win may actually strengthen support for further unilateral moves.
They might withdraw support for a few settlements hard to defend, but this will just mean completing the wall even faster.
Again, a great deal will depend on what Hamas does with its newfound strength, and the full ramifications may not become apparent for several weeks. All we know now is that, once again, Middle Eastern politics may have turned upside down in an instant.

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