Tuesday, January 24, 2006

That’s Not Right! …or is it?

I had been hoping to develop a more thought-out post for my first at the Chateau, but something surprised me while watching cable news last night – one of those moments when I ask myself "Is this really what I think"?

Although I try to keep up on current events as time allows, I hadn’t been closely following the details of this week’s Palestinian legislative elections. Hamas pre-election rally in the West Bank town of Tulkarem Monday, Jan. 23, 2006.(AP Photo/Nasser Ishtayeh) After over a decade of relative dominance on the local political scene under career terrorist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Yasser Arafat, the Fatah party’s leadership has come under fire lately in the wake of corruption scandals and charges of cronyism (issues perhaps not unfamiliar to Western readers). As a result, the Fatah party, now “led” by one of its founders and current PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, is expected by most observers to cede at least some of its power to the more radical Islamist Hamas party. This is despite the involvement of some Fatah candidates who are very popular, including one who is known to his supporters as “Hitler” – I kid you not. “Hitler”, born Jamal Abu Roub, is among the leaders of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a group that although associated with Fatah has ignored calls from Abbas to suspend violence.

Fatah currently controls 68 of the 88 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, which will grow to 132 seats after the election – exactly how many seats will be in the Hamas column remains a matter of debate. In Nablus, a city of over a quarter million that has long been considered a Fatah stronghold, a recent local election resulted in Hamas winning 13 of 15 council seats. PA Information Minister Nabil Shaath however is confident that Fatah will win enough of the 132 seats to form a government on its own, and suggests that Fatah would then offer to share power only with parties that recognize Israel and accept the “road map to peace”, implicitly ruling out a deal with Hamas. "After the election, I think we will establish a government in coalition with the leftist and the independent lists," he said. "With these people, we can agree on a joint program that includes negotiations with Israel, the implementation of the road map and a cease-fire. With Hamas, it will be very difficult to reach a joint program. We can't form a coalition with Hamas if it doesn't agree to this program."

With numerous episodes of election-related violence, gunmen from both parties (as well as others such as Islamic Jihad that are boycotting the vote) are ensuring that the outcome will be difficult to predict. The likeliest scenario is that Fatah may cling to a slim majority, but there is little doubt that Hamas is on the rise, and an outright Hamas victory remains a possibility.

Both parties have been spending money on campaigns to improve their image – in fact, American tax dollars are being applied to support the party of Arafat. If domestic politics make for strange bedfellows, international affairs can be an orgy of opportunistic relationships, so my money going to Fatah was not that much of a shocker. What made me pause was realizing that after years of sneering at Arafat (like many, I literally cheered upon seeing news of his demise), I somehow find myself actually rooting for Fatah, and reluctantly am OK with how my money is being spent in this regard. In a classic race to the bottom between two evils, Hamas is in my view the “winner” – that is, the less acceptable of the two. Fatah’s record is nothing to be proud of, but raising the blood-soaked green flag of Hamas will benefit no one in the end – not those whom the party claims to represent, not the Israelis who are closely following the elections, and certainly not anyone interested in moving the Mideast peace process forward.