Friday, January 27, 2006

It's not as dramatic as you think it is...

Of course, everyone who followed the Palestinian elections is erupting about Hamas this and Hamas that and how the Hamas victory changes everything and kills the peace process, or how it exposes the true Palestinian desire to destroy Israel, or just how it was so stunning and overwhelming.

It's really not any of those things, though it's easy to think that way.

Here's the breakdown:

(1) Hamas won so big because of the PA electoral system, not because it actually won big. The method of election to the PLC involved 66 constituency seats and 66 proportional representation list seats. The constituency seats were divided into multi-member districts, from a size of one (Jericho, Tubas, Salfit) to nine (Hebron); the PR seats were divided based on an overall ballot.

This system was a major improvement on the previous system, which used only the constituency method; however, it still was meant to favor Fatah, the governing party. Since each voter had as many constituency votes as seats, most voters wound up (predictably) voting for all the members of a single slate. The top vote getters were elected, irrespective of percentage obtained. Therefore, this system functions in many respects like a first-past-the-post majoritarian system.

Fatah had, of course, intended that it would receive a narrow majority. Unexpectedly, the opposite occurred, resulting in the following results in the constituencies: [these are preliminary results]

Change and Reform [Hamas], 46 seats (but only 42.9% of the party list vote)
Fatah, 16 seats (but received 39.8% of the party list vote)
independents, 4 seats

The proportional seats, divided according to the party list vote, were much closer, and several small leftist/secular trends won seats: Mustafa Barghouthi's Independent Palestine, the Third Way of Hanan Ashrawi and Salam Fayyad, and the leftist PPP/DFLP/etc coalition took 6 seats on 7.7% of the vote (again a preliminary figure). The overall Hamas majority, however, occurred because half the seats were selected in a system heavily favoring parties winning by a small margin.

(2) Hamas' victory doesn't mean that Palestinians want to abandon the idea of the peace process, or that they are suddenly Islamists. What it does mean is that (a) they didn't think the peace process was yielding any gains that a Hamas victory would reverse, and (b) they saw Hamas (Hamas succeeded at portraying itself) as the only "clean" party with a viable chance of winning. It doesn't mean they support all of Hamas' ideas about Islamic law or believe that erasing Israel from the map is a reasonable political goal (I won't venture a guess on "desirable" as I don't know the numbers).

(3) Hamas' victory isn't all that relevant, because the PA isn't all that relevant. Israel has basically destroyed any capacity the PA once had to administrate in the West Bank. As Israel controls all the levers of power, including control over travel between population centers, and is working unilaterally and not dealing with the PA regardless, nothing really changes. The PA cannot do anything except attempt to administer cities and prevent Palestinians from backlashing against their desperate situation. The Hamas victory does not change this.

With regard to Gaza, the one place where the PA might have a chance of actually administering something, Hamas already had effective control. There is no change.

Perhaps this victory will place the focus back where it belongs: on the Palestinian liberation movement as a whole. During the past 12 years the refugees abroad have become increasingly ignored, though they deserve a voice in the process alongside their brothers in the 1948 and 1967 territories ["1948 territories" is a common Palestinian euphemism for Israel]; and perhaps there will be a voice again for those who have been marginalized by the emergence of the autonomist administration. For a few years now I have advocated the dissolution of the PA as a protest against Israel's refusal to allow it any semblance of authority, and Israel's continued use of the body as a scapegoat; and perhaps now the PA can appropriately fade away.

What will happen now? Israel will not, publicly, work with a Hamas which is, publicly, committed to its destruction. The best-case scenario, though, is that the people behind Hamas are pragmatic and act as the Likud of Begin, the people in power in Israel (Olmert and his crew) are pragmatic and will talk to them behind the scenes, Hamas is actually able to assert authority in the territories in a way Fatah could not in recent days, and the groups can work out a settlement.

This is, of course, Israel/Palestine, where best case is never reality. I cannot hazard a guess as to what the ultimate outcome will be, but I will predict: (a) Hamas will form a "government" [of nothing] with smaller factions but not with Fatah; (b) Abbas will continue as president; (c) publicly no negotiations will take place, but back channel discussions will occur.

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