With the Palestinian Authority still negotiating for a unity government with Hamas, and elections now scheduled for May 2012, it is worth asking whether Hamas has changed. Has the effect of the Arab Spring, where Islamist parties have won elections in Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, led Hamas to turn away from terrorism toward the ballot box or to moderate any of its positions?
Here is what the Hamas leader Ismail Haniyah, Gaza’s “prime minister,” told a huge rally in Gaza on December 13:
We affirm that armed resistance is our strategic option and the only way to liberate our land, from the [Mediterranean] sea to the River [Jordan]. God willing, Hamas will lead the people… to the uprising until we liberate Palestine, all of Palestine.
So, the commitment to terrorism and the absolute refusal to accept the existence of Israel remain. Indeed, this was a call for the violent destruction of the Jewish State. Those who, like Secretary of Defense Panetta, continue to say “just get to the damn table” are blinding themselves to the most obvious problems of the “peace process.” Putting aside the fact that it is the Palestinians, not Israel, who are refusing to go to the table, is it worthwhile negotiating with half of the Palestinian polity when the other half is announcing such goals, and any agreement that might be reached cannot be implemented?
In fact the Haniyah statement raises once again another issue: should a terrorist group still committed to violence be permitted to contest the elections? In 2006, the United States and the Quartet said yes, because a group might in theory abandon violence after winning and then be a suitable participant in democratic politics. Perhaps there are circumstances, in some places, where that theory would apply, but it should not be applied to Hamas, in 2012; Hamas has shown that it will not abandon its goals or its methods.
Given that Hamas is a part of the Muslim Brotherhood, here is a question about other Brotherhood groups, affiliates, or sympathizers coming to power in other Arab lands: will they denounce Hamas for such statements and call for a peaceful settlement? Will they say they agree with PLO leader and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s rejection of terrorism? How they talk about these issues, and how they treat Hamas leaders, will tell us a good deal about the political paths they will take. It is not the only litmus test, but it will be a useful one.