The Price of Ignoring Palestinians' Needs

Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections is the logical outcome of a "peace process" more than a decade long that completely ignored what was happening within Palestinian society.

Natan Sharansky

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Hamas's victory in the Palestinian elections is the logical outcome of a "peace process" more than a decade long that completely ignored what was happening within Palestinian society.

Rather than seriously link the peace process to the building of a free society among the Palestinians, the democratic world, including Israel, turned a blind eye as Palestinian civil society was hollowed out, its streets taken over by armed thugs, and its youth indoctrinated to glorify suicide bombers and despise Israel and America, Jews and Christians.

The international community repeated its shallow formula for peace like a broken record. International legitimacy, Israeli concessions and billions of dollars in aid were used to strengthen Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas's Palestinian Authority - the "moderates" who had ostensibly renounced violence and accepted Israel's existence - and marginalize extremist groups like Hamas.

The Palestinian election result is the fruit of this failed approach to peacemaking, which amounted to nothing more than supporting a corrupt dictatorship. The world believed that seriously pressing Palestinian leaders to enact real reform would only weaken the Palestinian Authority internally and strengthen Hamas. The truth is precisely the opposite. By failing to insist that the Palestinian Authority dedicate itself to improving the lives of Palestinians, the United States, Israel, the EU and other players in the peace process made themselves contemptible in the eyes of Palestinians who saw their lives only getting worse.

When Arafat died, I had hopes that perhaps a new path to peace would be taken. But it was not to be. Abbas was not told unequivocally that without serious reforms, he would receive no support from the free world. On the contrary, he was given a pass when he blatantly refused to confront terror groups.

For its part, Israel's government, encouraged by the effusive praise of the international community, embarked on a foolish policy of one-sided concessions, which, as I feared when I resigned from the government last May, only strengthened the forces of terror within Palestinian society.

To the outside world, the Palestinians have now chosen the party of terror over the party of peace. But in the eyes of most Palestinians, the differences between Hamas and the "moderate" Fatah were not primarily in their views toward Israel. In fact, satellites of Fatah, such as Tanzim and the Al-Aksa Brigades, were no less responsible for the terrorism against Israel than were Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Indeed, the leading figure on Fatah's list was Marwan Barghouti, a man serving five life sentences in an Israeli prison for his role in terror attacks.

No, the real difference for the Palestinians was that a Fatah-run Palestinian Authority was rightly seen as a corrupt and feckless organization that had done and would continue to do nothing to improve Palestinian lives, whereas Hamas was untainted by corruption and appreciated for providing real social services.

With the vote being a choice between corrupt terrorists dedicated only to themselves and honest terrorists who are also dedicated to others, is it any surprise that Hamas won by a landslide?

I believe that many Palestinians who voted for Hamas voted to end corruption, to restore law and order and to implement real reform; the slogan that Hamas chose in its election campaign was not "Throw the Jews into the Sea," but rather "Change and Reform." The paradox is that the only party that Palestinians see as credible on this internal reform agenda was a terror organization dedicated to Israel's destruction and which has declared President George W. Bush "the enemy of God" and "the enemy of Islam."

Now that the Palestinian Authority's corrupt dictatorship has collapsed and a terror organization riding a wave of resentment with the status quo is assuming power, the free world has an opportunity to restore moral clarity to the peace process.

The world must base their support for this new regime on two ironclad conditions. First, Hamas must explicitly abandon the goal of destroying Israel and renounce terrorism. Second, it must dedicate itself toward building a free society for the Palestinians.

For 12 years, Israel and the world have imposed the first condition and ignored evidence when it was violated. As for the second condition, not only were democratic reforms seen as irrelevant to peace, supporting a corrupt dictatorship was seen as essential.

If the new Palestinian regime does not abide by these conditions, the free world, including Israel, must actively confront it and withhold legitimacy, money and concessions. But we must also seek ways to support any Palestinian individuals and organizations that do abide by these conditions.

My fear is that the results of the Palestinian elections will discredit the whole concept of democratic reform in the Middle East. But that would be to discredit an idea without it having been tried. For all the talk of the need for Palestinian reform and democracy, the only thing that the world insisted upon was holding elections. Elections do not a make free society. Elections in a "fear society" in which there is no law and order, and in which democratic institutions are nonexistent, can bring the worst elements to power.

I hope that the policy of promoting democracy in the Middle East has not been dealt a fatal blow. Like so many tens of millions of Arabs in the region, there are countless Palestinians who want a better future, and we must seek every way to work with them. If we do not, we will end up not only betraying them once again, but also endangering ourselves.

Originally published in The International Herald Tribune on February 1, 2006. ©(2006) IHT/

Listen to an interview with MK Natan Sharansky on from March 8th, 2006.