Catch 22 - Hamas and the Palestinian Elections

The Reut Institute forewarns that Israel's objection to Hamas' participation in the elections may undermine Israel's interests and render them irrelevant.

Essence of the Warning

Due to its objection to the participation of Hamas - in its current format - in the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (1/06) Israel may find itself entrapped.

Since Israel wishes to maintain both the calm in the Gaza Strip and the weakness of the PA and Abu Mazen, it cannot prevent Hamas from participating in the elections.

Following the elections, Israel will be required to negotiate with the democratically elected Palestinian leadership, even if it includes Hamas members.

Existing Mindset

Israel officially objects to any dialogue with Hamas as long as it has not disarmed (hereinafter: "Israel's position").1 This position is based on the fact that Hamas is a terrorist organization rejecting the existence of the State of Israel.2

Accordingly, Israel objects to the participation of Hamas in the Palestinian elections set for January 2006.3 The legal basis for this objection is the Interim Agreement (9/95), which forbids the nomination of "any candidates, parties or coalitions ... (that) commit or advocate racism; or pursue the implementation of their aims by unlawful or non-democratic means".4

Within the First Phase of the Roadmap, the Palestinians are obligated to fight terror, conduct political reforms and hold elections. The Roadmap does not explicitly stipulate the dismantling of terror organizations as a condition for holding elections.5

The Disengagement Plan did not change Israel's position. The GOI continues to demand the disarmament of Hamas and to object to its participation in the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC).6

Diverging Reality - Israel's Position Vis-à-vis Hamas is self-entrapping

In practice, emerging trends are undermining this position to the point of rendering it irrelevant:

Ongoing calm in Gaza is in Israel's interest - In January 2006 Israel could be standing on the verge of national elections. Israel's interest in maintaining calm in Gaza would not be based on security considerations only, but on internal political considerations as well.

The Palestinian Authority (PA) is dysfunctional - the current calm in Gaza is based on understandings with Hamas and not on the PA's law enforcement abilities. Therefore:

  1. When Fatah and Hamas fight Israel takes the blow - any attempt to damage the political power of Hamas will undermine the "Tahdiah";7
  2. The flexibility of Hamas entails a political price - The Hamas wants to integrate in the PA in order to increase its political power.8 For this purpose, it wishes to take Fatah's place as the leading political movement.
    Hamas will not sacrifice its political assets, i.e. its weapons, social infrastructure, and military and ideological resistance to Israel without struggle and compensation for its concessions.
    Exerting pressure on Abu-Mazen to prevent Hamas from participating in the elections may weaken Fatah and strengthen Hamas, even to the point of positioning it as an alternative to the PA.
  3. Abu-Mazen is also entrapped - Protecting Abu-Mazen and strengthening his status are perceived as interests of both Israel and the international community. However, political or military measures taken by Abu-Mazen against the Hamas, may turn out to be counterproductive.9

Lack of clarity regarding organizational ascription - The Hamas has a political wing and a military wing. In addition, there are those who identify with the organization, but are not members of it, others who are members of Fatah, but collaborate with the Hamas and former members of the organization who still support it. As a result of this organizational blunder, there is no clear policy regarding these different groups.

Hesitancy of the international community - the international community is hesitant with regards to Israel's position. On one hand, the US and the EU have declared Hamas to be a terrorist organization, and therefore abstains any dialogue with it. On the other hand:

  • Democratization Process - Both the US and the EU would find it difficult not to conduct dialogue with a democratically elected Palestinian leadership, the establishment of which they wish to encourage within the First Phase of the Roadmap;10
  • Hamas Pragmatism - In light of the upcoming elections, there are voices in the Hamas calling to establish contacts with the US, Britain or any other country, except for Israel.11 Moreover, some members of the Hamas Political Wing hold positions that are not more radical from those of PLO and Fatah members;12
  • The Hizbullah Precedent - The Hizbullah is recognized as a terrorist organization and the Lebanese government was demanded to disarm it and prevent its activity in South Lebanon. Nevertheless, Hizbullah participated in the elections and its representatives hold senior governmental positions. Still, no international actor has severed its relations with Lebanon.


Israel's position may lead to an entrapment - Israel's objection to the participation of Hamas in the elections may turn out to be a mistake, in view of the following possibilities:

  • Prior to the Elections: Agreement between Fatah and Hamas would erode Fatah's dominance - If Hamas and the PA reach an agreement on disarmament, Abu-Mazen would be obliged to pay a political price, which would change the balance of power between Fatah and the Hamas.
  • Prior to the Elections: Preventing Hamas participation in the elections would lead to violence and further weakening of the PA - If the PA decides to prevent Hamas from participating in the elections, it may bring to the collapse of the Hudna pact between Hamas and the PA and lead to violence.
  • Following the Elections: Hamas participation in the elections would lead to a deadlock - If Hamas participates in the elections and its representatives are elected to the PLC, Israel would be caught in a political crisis vis-à-vis the Palestinians the day after the elections. Eventually, Israel would have no choice but to continue negotiations with the PA, despite Hamas presence.
  • Following the Elections: Who is the interlocutor? - In light of the aforementioned lack of clarity concerning the ideological identity and organizational ascription of some of the candidates, Israel may find it difficult to form a sound and coherent policy regarding the Palestinian interlocutor.
  • Unilateral moves -Israel's position may obstruct future political negotiations with the PA, and increase the probability of further unilateral moves.

Policy Options

Moderation of Israeli Declarations - Considering this possible entrapment, it may be advisable for the GOI to moderate its declarations on the issue.

Focusing Israel's Policy on the Military Wing - In order to avoid possible entrapments on the day after the elections, Israel can focus its policy on members of the Military Wing, or those involved in military activity in the following manner:13

On one hand, the status of an "Elected Representative" does not entail immunity for those involved in terrorist activity, and Israel may still continue its war against the members of the Military Wing, even if they are elected to the PLC.

On the other hand, Israel can permit contacts with Hamas members who are not involved with the Military Wing, including heads of municipalities and members of the PA.

1 PM Sharon strongly objected to the participation of Hamas in the elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council on 1/25 (Aluf Benn, Ha'aretz, 9/15/05 in Hebrew).

2 For example. On August 27 2005, the Information Bureau of 'Izz Al-Din Al-Qassem Brigades', the military wing of Hamas, released an audiocassette in which Muhammad Deif threatens to "turn all of Palestine to hell for Israel", and warns the PA not to touch the "weapons that freed Gaza", promises to continue to "defeat the occupation in Jerusalem and the West Bank," and asks Allah to help the Palestinians liberate cities in Israel.

3 Israel's PM and Minister of Foreign Affairs have discussed this objection in meetings with foreign diplomats, and explained that it is a violent organization whose charters calls for the extermination of Israel (Aluf Benn, Ha'aretz, 9/8/05).

4 See Interim Agreement - Annex II: "Elections", Article III-(2).

5 See the First Phase of the Roadmap.

6 See footnote #2.

7 Tahdiah means "calm" in Arabic. Within the political struggle on the PA Election Law in Spring of 2005, the Fatah tried to amend the law so that it would increase its political power on the expense of the Hamas. As a result, the Hamas escalated military actions against Israel in order to put pressure on Fatah and the PA (Aluf Benn, Ha'aretz, 6/8/05; Arnon Regular, Ha'aretz, 7/17/05; Amira Hess, Ha'aretz, 7/17/05).

8 Danni Rubinstein, Ha'aretz, 6/5/05.

9 For the time being, it seems that Abu-Mazen is sticking to political measures: Lally Weymouth. "The Safest Way", Washington Post, 11/9/05.

10 The EU officially objects to negotiations with the Hamas, but does not negate contacts with candidates that are Hamas members. It already maintains contacts with Hamas representatives that were elected for municipal authorities and with candidates for the PLC elections (Aluf Benn, Ha'aretz, 6/16/05). Furthermore, a de-facto international recognition of Hamas elected representatives is probable (Adar Primor, Ha'aretz, 6/10/05). For elaboration on the stance of the Quartet regarding the Hamas see: Makovsky D. & Young E., "Toward a Quartet Position on Hamas: European Rules on Banning Political Parties", Peace Watch #15, The Washington Institute, 12/9/05.

11 "Hamas is Ready for negotiations with the US and Britain" (Al-Hayaat, 5/23/05).

12 See remarks made by Ismail Haniyya on the subject (Danni Rubinstein, Ha'aretz, 1/17/05).

13 For an opposing opinion see: Boaz Ganor, Yedi'ot Aharonot, 5/23/05