Now Comes Power-With Responsibility?

Article excerpt

Shortly after the outbreak of the first intifada in 1987, I witnessed a confrontation between an angry Palestinian exile and Yasser Arafat, head of the Fatah movement and chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization. The man was from Jerusalem, and had been a child when the Israeli occupation of the eastern part of the city began in 1967. Catching Arafat as he left a conference hall, he told him that he used to listen to his speeches about liberating the whole of Palestine through armed struggle and they gave him hope and inspiration, but now he was making concession after concession in response to American and Israeli demands and international pressure.

"What happened to you?" he asked.

Arafat leaned toward him, put his hand on his arm, and said, "In those days, I was the leader of Fatah. Now, I am the leader of the Palestinian people."

Without another word, Arafat walked on, leaving his questioner temporarily rooted to the spot and speechless.

I am reminded of that moment by the success of Hamas in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. At last, it has come to a point where it will be forced to make some hard choices about its policies-not in response to foreign demands so much as to those of the people who it will govern.

Until now, Hamas has had power without responsibility. It had a strong armed wing, and could mobilize tens of thousands for its street protests. It represented a minority politically, but a very substantial one. It was in a position to criticize all the failings and mistakes of the established Palestinian leadership without having to prove that it could do better. Those times are over.

Following the elections, Hamas could simply stand by its past policy of refusing to negotiate with Israel, on the grounds that to do so would confer legitimacy upon it; it could insist that there is nothing to discuss and that Israel must leave every inch of the occupied West Bank in return for a long-term truce, without negotiation. In that case, it would face problems with its own electorate, which certainly wants a complete end to the occupation, but also wants peace, order and economic development-all unattainable if Hamas chooses to leave no road open but that of violent confrontation.

A more likely alternative is that Hamas will look for a formula that would allow negotiations with Israel to resume. This would include a long-term extension of the cease-fire that it has observed during the election campaign and the enforcement of the cease-fire upon other Palestinian organizations-a condition that Hamas, unlike the outgoing leadership, is in a position to fulfill. The negotiating position of a Hamas-dominated Palestinian National Authority would be more uncompromising than the former leadership's on the surface, but beneath differences in language and approach, both are bound by a popular consensus among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip that they are ready to agree to co-exist peacefully with Israel on the condition that it fully withdraws from the West Bank, as well as the Gaza Strip.

Whether there will be a peace process at all does not only depend on Palestinian decisions. If the USA and Israel refuse to negotiate with it, or try to insist upon conditions that it is unable to meet at present, then the initiative will pass to those on both sides who profit from a continuing conflict. …