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Hard Questions, Tough Answers with Yossi Alpher - May 9, 2005

Q. How does Hamas' success in elections influence Israel, PLO/PA, and US? Q. ...the British academics boycott of two Israeli universities...?

Q. Hamas appears to have done well in last Thursday's Palestinian municipal elections. How does this influence calculations on the part of Israel, the PLO/PA led by Mahmoud Abbas, and the US?

A. Hamas did so well that it actually led in the popular vote in the 82 municipalities involved in this round of elections. Because it won in all the major towns and cities it contested, leaving Fatah to win in lesser towns and villages, it garnered around 500,000 votes compared to Fatah's 230,000 (and 70,000 to independent candidates, some of whom could be pro-Fatah or pro-Hamas). This achievement is amplified by the fact that Hamas did not bother to field candidates in three traditionally Christian villages near Bethlehem where a majority of council seats is set aside for Christian candidates who are not likely to be Hamas adherents.

True, Fatah can claim to have won some 55 percent of all municipal seats, compared to around 35 percent for Hamas, but this appears to be a hollow victory. Particularly striking was Hamas' victory in Rafah, where Fatah had a strong presence, and in Qalqilya, where it swept all 15 council seats and deposed a veteran Fatah mayor. In the Gaza Strip, in particular, Hamas won all major elections, and it appears set to dominate politics there after all election rounds are completed.

Fatah has lodged protests against the results in Rafah and elsewhere, even though Jimmy Carter's National Democratic Institute gave the elections its seal of approval. As one Hamas statement put it, "this is the first time a ruling party has accused the opposition of falsifying election results". On the other hand, the exit poll carried out by the distinguished Palestinian political scientist Khalil Shikaki gave Fatah 13 out of 15 seats in Rafah; conceivably there is some substance in the Fatah protest.

Hamas now controls 48 municipalities in which some 600,000 Palestinians reside; Fatah controls 56 municipalities, but with smaller populations. (These figures are frequently manipulated up or down, depending on the presumed political inclination of newly-elected independent or clan-based council members. But the general ratio of political forces is accepted by all.) Hundreds of additional municipalities, including most major towns and cities, all currently administered by councils appointed by the late Yasser Arafat and dominated by Fatah, will hold elections in the coming months.

From the standpoint of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and the PLO/PA, these elections produced a setback. The Fatah-dominated PLO/PA scheduled the municipal elections in stages, beginning deliberately with areas considered "safe" from their standpoint. Yet Hamas has scored consistently high in the first three phases. The next stage, scheduled for July, will include more major municipalities. And national elections for the legislative council are planned for July 17.

One consequence of the Fatah setback could be a decision to postpone some or all of these elections in the hope that the movement will exploit the interim to clean up its act and remove corrupt and ineffective candidates. Another could be reconsideration of changes in the national electoral system. Abbas promised Hamas to reform the system in order to allow for 50 percent of the council to be elected on national lists and 50 percent by regional constituencies. Most recently he proposed to the outgoing council that elections be 100 percent by national lists, i.e., the Israeli (and American-imposed Iraqi) system. The general sense within Fatah until now has been that it stands to benefit more from a regional system, and the issue has been held up in the legislative process. Now it is no longer clear which system, if any, can guarantee Fatah a "safe" election that will give it a working majority. Moreover, Hamas insists that Abbas follow through on his promises regarding both the system and the July election date. So any attempt by the Fatah-dominated outgoing National Legislative Council to delay elections or avoid changing the system could have serious consequences for Hamas' adherence to the ceasefire and its cooperation with Abbas' "politicization" program.

Turning to Israel and the United States, the prospect of Hamas winning enough representation to demand to participate in the formulation and perhaps implementation of PA/PLO policies presents a challenge without precedent. Both Jerusalem and Washington list Hamas as a terrorist organization and refuse to deal with it. In order to cease to be a terrorist organization, Hamas has to abandon its military/terrorist infrastructure--a demand made recently by Abbas himself with reference to the period immediately following elections, and rejected outright by Hamas.

If Hamas wins the July national elections, or even prevails only in Gaza, then Israel's disengagement plan will confront a "Hamastan" there. Already, voices are being heard among a new group of skeptics calling for reconsideration of disengagement--as if by remaining in the Gaza Strip Israel could prevent this eventuality! But Egypt, too, may reconsider its involvement in disengagement, which from its point of view was initially designed precisely to ensure a smooth takeover in the Strip by Fatah rather than Hamas, which is an offshoot of its own Muslim Brotherhood.

Broadly speaking, this leads us to three possibilities for the period beyond disengagement and beyond Palestinian national elections. First, Fatah will retain enough power to relegate Hamas to the opposition and Israel will continue to deal with Abbas and his government. Secondly Israel, backed by the US, will refuse to deal with a Palestinian government in which Hamas has achieved some sort of a say, citing Hamas' ongoing terrorist structure. Third, Hamas will indeed disarm and Israel will agree to talk to it, with the almost inevitable result that negotiations, if indeed they take place, will become more difficult than ever due to Hamas' hardline positions (compared to those of Fatah) on issues like territory, refugees, and recognition of Israel. While its assumption of political power might eventually moderate Hamas' stand on issues related to Israel, this will undoubtedly be a prolonged process.

At the global strategic level, Abbas' decision to invite Hamas into the electoral process captures one of the key dilemmas posed by President Bush's drive for democratic reform in the Arab Middle East: democracy can enfranchise "bad guys" as well as "good guys", and in the current state of affairs the bad guys are liable to win. Already in Iraq we have a government dominated to an extent by Shi'ite fundamentalists with close ties to the Islamic regime in Iran. In Lebanon, reform is liable to give Hizballah a larger stake in the political structure. And in Palestine, as last week's elections show, a radical Islamist movement with a record of murderous terrorism is likely to achieve a stake in power through entirely legitimate means.

It's hard to see how this will help the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace, at least in the short term. But that's democracy in the Middle East.

Q. A decision by a British union of academics to boycott two Israeli universities has produced a strong reaction in Israel, including a decision to turn the Ariel-based College of Judea and Samaria into a university. Can you put these acts into perspective?

A. There are two relevant issues here. The first, and more important, is the growing move at the non-governmental international level to question Israel's legitimacy and exercise pressure over the Palestinian issue. The movement is being led by Protestant denominations and US municipalities that are discussing divestment, and by far left-leaning NGOs--first at Durban at last year's anti-racism conference, now academics in England. It may have drawn encouragement from last year's International Court of Justice decision on the fence/wall, then from the EU's success in obliging Israel to label goods made in settlements so additional import taxes can be applied to them. But its ideological roots appear to be far more troublesome.

The decision by the UK Association of University Teachers (AUT) to single out two Israeli universities for boycott has little weight in and of itself. There is already a movement afoot among this group of academics to void the boycott, and several British professors have asked to join the faculty of the University of Haifa (one of those boycotted) so the AUT will be forced to boycott its own people.

A similar, more sweeping boycott attempt orchestrated within the AUT a year ago was defeated; this year the proponents fixed on specific areas in which they deemed that Israeli universities "transgressed" in ways that justified punishment. It singled out Bar Ilan University for its sponsorship or tutelage of the College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel. And it decided to boycott the University of Haifa because of its treatment of a senior lecturer, an extreme left-wing, self-styled "anti-Zionist" named Ilan Pappe, who among other things charges that the university unfairly disqualified an MA thesis that alleged an atrocity against the Arab residents of nearby Tantura in 1948. Pappe, in fact, was a key instigator of the boycott; he actually demanded that the British academics boycott all Israeli universities to protest the occupation. Still under investigation by the British lecturers are the grounds for a proposal to boycott the Hebrew University as well: it is allegedly expanding onto land on Mt. Scopus taken illegally from Palestinians.

The boycott abounds in ridiculous paradoxes. Why it didn't focus on Tel Aviv University, which is built on the land of the pre-1948 Arab village of Sheikh Munis, is anyone's guess. Fully half the student body at the University of Haifa is Arab. The student body at the Ariel College includes many Arabs from villages just across the green line in Israel, and Ariel is included in the Clinton-Barak-Arafat maps of Israeli-annexed territory negotiated in 2000-2001. In general, the boycott aims at the most liberal sector in Israeli society: Israeli academics reacted with disgust at the antics of their British colleagues, which in any case have little immediate effect on much of anything. And of course there is the inevitable question: why Israel? Why not boycott China over its human rights abuses? Or the US over Guantanamo? Or, for that matter, why not protest Arab human rights abuses? Inevitably, like it or not, anti-Semitism suggests itself as an explanation.

Turning to the second issue, the Sharon government proceeded to abuse the boycott issue. In keeping with his attempt to maintain a strong hawkish image as disengagement approaches, Sharon embraced the idea, long advocated by Ariel's energetic mayor, Ron Nachman (Likud), to turn the Ariel College into a university. For "balance", a decision was taken to turn a number of colleges in the Galilee area into a university as well. The ridiculous aspect of these decisions is that there is no national money in the budget to finance them. Indeed, Israel's seven existing universities are hard put to manage their affairs in view of recent budget cuts imposed by Finance Minister Netanyahu and Education Minister Livnat--the latter seen as distinctly anti-intellectual.

The last new university approved in Israel was Ben Gurion in the Negev, in 1970. The country's population has more than doubled since then, and its existing universities have become huge. Clearly there is room for more, if government priorities could change and the money could be found (Israeli-American billionaire Arnon Milchan has donated $100 million for the Galilee university). But Ariel, which has 17,000 settler residents and is not sovereign Israeli territory, hardly seems like the place to start. If nothing else, putting a university there violates Sharon's commitment to President Bush to avoid any further settlement expansion.