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Issue Date:  February 24, 2006

When the vote goes the 'wrong' way

There is no easy strategy for dealing with the latest incendiary development -- the election of Hamas to power in Palestine -- in the perennially explosive Middle East. But revelations that the United States and Israel are plotting to destabilize the newly elected Hamas government suggest a difficult situation could become impossible.

If true, the news indicates the United States’ new commitment to democracy in the Middle East is as hollow as many skeptics in the region assumed. The conclusion to be drawn is inescapable: The United States is for democracy when it suits our purposes; we’re against it when it doesn’t. Given its already low standing in the Mideast, the U.S. government might as well ax Undersecretary of State for Public Diplomacy Karen Hughes’ job right now and save taxpayers the cost of her salary. Hughes has the unenviable task of trying to burnish the battered U.S. image in the Muslim world. Propaganda can only go so far when the policies are the problem. And the policies are and have been a problem for years. U.S. support for Israeli expansionism at the expense of international law and Palestinian lives and territory has sowed enmity against us in the Middle East; so has U.S. support for corrupt, authoritarian dictators in the region.

President Bush’s speech before the National Endowment for Democracy in 2003, in which he declared that 60 years of pursuing stability at the price of liberty in the Middle East was a mistake that the United States must reverse, offered hope of change. But it is becoming clear that what seemed a breath of fresh air was simply the windy talk of a politician.

What’s ahead for the Palestinians? More misery, it seems. Several weeks ago, NCR columnist Neve Gordon wrote from Israel that cutting off aid to the Palestinian Authority would be an experiment in mass starvation. This apparently is not deterring government officials in Israel and the United States. The idea that the United States and Israel can punish the Palestinians into accepting peace on Israeli terms has been the longtime modus operandi of both governments with the consequences that we see today -- the election of Hamas to government. Extreme conditions encourage extremism.

Fatah’s own failures certainly played a large role in its defeat. So has the absence of effective support for Mahmoud Abbas from Israel and the United States. After years of demonizing Yasser Arafat and trumpeting the widespread corruption of his regime, the United States and Israel were presented with a Palestinian president who viewed violence as unacceptable, yet little was done to help him demonstrate that his leadership could bring results.

The election of Hamas to government is a challenge -- to Israel, to the international community, to Hamas itself. Israel must figure out a way to deal with its avowed enemy; the international community has to reconcile the Palestinians’ right to self-determination with Hamas’ record as a terrorist group; Hamas will have to put aside grandiloquent rhetoric for the necessary, unglamorous responsibilities of government. (A nice note in Thomas Friedman’s Feb. 15 column in The New York Times was his mention that in Ramallah, Hamas people are buying Dale Carnegie books on management.)

There might be some merit in allowing Hamas to feel the real burdens of its own domestic promises without providing a scapegoat from the outside.

Americans should demand that our government recognize and accept the results of democratic elections in Palestine. The reasons to do this are both practical and idealistic. If we want to win the war on terror, we should cease enraging Muslims around the world by pursuing patently unjust, undemocratic policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. We would do well here to consider not only our own history and what we were willing to pay to win independence from the British crown but also the principles that we claim to hold dear. A passage from the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence might not be amiss to quote here, but neither is a more contemporary message from an American president.

“Representative governments in the Middle East will reflect their own cultures. They will not, and should not, look like us. Democratic nations may be constitutional monarchies, federal republics or parliamentary systems. And working democracies always need time to develop -- as did our own. We’ve taken a 200-year journey toward inclusion and justice -- and this makes us patient.”

Those were fine sentiments, Mr. Bush. Now it’s time to live up to them.

National Catholic Reporter, February 24, 2006

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