A Comment on the Political Victory of Hamas-BECKER
The election victory of Hamas sent a bombshell throughout the Middle East and the rest of the world. I will comment briefly on its implications for democracy among the Palestinians, economic development, and relations with Israel.
I agree with Posner that it is hard to tell whether free elections will continue among the Palestinians. One free election means very little in forecasting the future-even the Weimar Republic had several elections before Hitler destroyed Germany's young democracy. Contested government, a free press, and other free institutions are far more likely to persist when they have been practiced for a long time. James Madison argued against Thomas Jefferson's proposal to continually change the American Constitution, and in favor of a stable constitution because of "that veneration, which time bestows on everything, and without which perhaps the wisest and freest governments would not possess the requisite stability" (Federalist Paper no. 49).
Economically, the Palestinian Authority is a basket case: no foreign investment, little foreign trade, and emigration of the more talented, educated, and ambitious Palestinians to elsewhere in the Middle East, or to America. The Authority is barely kept afloat by aid from Europe, other Arab nations, and the United States that amounts to about $1.5 billion per year.
Hamas now has to choose between two radically different paths. In many respects the easiest one would be to maintain its charter that calls for the "obliteration" of Israel. Surely, however, that would further discourage foreign investment, and is likely to speed up the out-migration of talented Palestinians. In addition, it will mean the end of aid to the Palestinian Authority from America, and possibly also from much of Europe as well. A sizable reduction in foreign aid may force Hamas to try to introduce economic reforms, but these cannot succeed as long as its goal is to eliminate Israel.
The wiser course would be for Hamas to become more flexible and greatly moderate its hostile actions and rhetoric toward Israel. After all, Ariel Sharon while in power shifted from a hard-line policy toward the Palestinian Authority to a more moderate position, and the Israel economy is in far better shape than is the Palestinian economy. Hamas showed that it could win an election by downplaying its hostility to Israel, and instead emphasizing its ability to run the government more efficiently and with less corruption than Fatah. However, unless the new government can significantly improve the dismal Palestinian economic situation, Hamas' popularity is likely to erode. Yet the only way to retain human capital, attract foreign direct investment, and widen foreign trade, all essential for significant economic progress, is to reach a stable settlement with Israel.
For these reasons, I am more optimistic than Posner and many others about the chances that Hamas' victory will improve rather than worsen relations with Israel. Perhaps, as Posner argues, it will become easier for Israel to retaliate against Hamas leaders when they are physically more concentrated either in the Palestinian Parliament or in executive offices. But I do not consider that a crucial consideration.
My cautious optimism is based on the economic pressures Hamas will face as it tries to govern the Palestinians. Yet the Middle East is the most unpredictable region of the world. So I would not bet a lot on my analysis, especially in the near-term, but I do disagree with the pessimistic views among the media and politicians about what Hamas will do after its astonishing political victory.