Tuesday, January 31, 2006


By William Fisher

That President Bush is a big fan of elections should surprise no one. He’s won a lot of them.

But his simplistic equation -- elections = freedom = democracy = peace -- has been running into a bit of trouble lately.

The president hyped the deeply flawed presidential and parliamentary elections in Egypt as steps toward democracy. But the result was a dramatic rise in votes for the outlawed Islamic brotherhood and Mubarak’s principal contender for the top job sent to jail.

He endlessly spun the purple fingers of the Iraqi elections as victories for democracy. But the result was zero in terms of bringing the Iraqi people together, the coalition of Islamic fundamentalist parties getting most of the votes, and now eagerly cementing their ties to the Iranian theocracy.

He was critical of Iran’s presidential election last June, but attempted to reassure the Iranian people with the declaration, "As you stand for your own liberty, the people of America stand with you." The result was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a Holocaust-denier who proposes deporting all the Israelis back to Europe.

Then came the Katrina of Middle East politics. Beginning In 2002, President Bush began urging the Palestinians to elect new leaders “not compromised by terror" and poured hundreds of millions into keeping Hamas, the militant Islamic movement, from winning. But the result was a landslide for the party dedicated to a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem: The destruction of Israel.

And, even in the face of this electoral disaster, the president simply could not stop spinning. "I like the competition of ideas," Mr. Bush said in a news conference. "I like people who have to go out and say, 'Vote for me, and here's what I'm going to do.' There's something healthy about a system that does that. And so the elections yesterday were very interesting."

Very interesting indeed.

The Bush Administration, along with the even more generous European supporters of “a new, improved” Palestinian Authority, clearly misread the temperature of Palestinian voters. My personal view is that the overwhelming majority of Hamas voters cast their ballots for change, not terror.

But whatever their motivations, the West is now stuck with the facts. The election of Hamas was another stick in the eye of the president’s prescription.

Which leaves the U.S. and its allies without any good options at all. The heads of the American, British and German governments made all the predictable noises: We will not provide funding for a terrorist organization. Hamas must renounce terror, recognize Israel’s right to exist, and negotiate a two-state solution.

So, predictably, did Hamas. Israeli and U.S. policies were responsible for their generations of misery. Unless they changed, Hamas would continue to be Hamas. And it would turn to its oil-rich friends in the Middle East to provide the money the Palestinian people so desperately need.

That development could set the stage for the Arab League to finally agree on something. And, in the process, the U.S. would become even more of a pariah than it is already. No more roadmap. No more ‘honest broker’.
However, let us all remember that these are early days. Both sides are quite likely to gradually back off their incendiary rhetoric over time. Even now, Hamas is toning down its language.

As the Associated Press reports from Jerusalem, “No more screeds against the ‘Zionist enemy’' or threats to ‘plant death in every corner’' of Israel. Since winning Palestinian parliament elections last week, Hamas has moderated its usually bombastic rhetoric in subtle ways that fall well short of Western demands to renounce terror and recognize Israel's right to exist but suggest the group is fumbling for ways to gain international acceptance.”

The problem is that while incrementalism may be the only reasonable expectation, time is on no one’s side in the Israeli-Palestinian debacle. It may take many months to get the parties back to any serious negotiations, but that has to be the goal in getting to the ‘beginning of the end’ of the conflict.

Recall that the negotiators with the infant United Nations in the 1947-48 debate over the establishment of the State of Israel included militant organizations like Irgun and the Stern Gang, whose leaders included such terrorists as Yitzhak Rabin, Ariel Sharon, and Menachim Begin.

But what to do in the meantime? There is an answer to that question that deserves consideration by the U.S. and its allies: increased support for non-governmental organizations in Gaza and the West Bank.

Despite the ravages that followed the Intifada and almost unbearable restrictions imposed by both the Israelis and the Palestinian Authority, there are dozens of NGOs in these areas. They represent virtually all the fields of interest of NGOs elsewhere – education, health, housing, human rights, women’s rights, community development, small business development, environment, and many more.

These organizations are still embryonic and struggling – often against the state. They are short on specialized skills, personnel, public understanding and, most of all, money. But they have demonstrated remarkable zeal and dedication – and some achievements -- in the face of unimaginably difficult conditions.

The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Bank, and other donors are already providing modest support for Palestinian NGOs that promote democratic values and moderation.

According to USAID officials, an earlier decline in financial support hurt the NGO sector and created a vacuum in the West Bank and Gaza that was successfully filled by Islamic institutions. Fearing a "Hamas takeover," as one official put it, USAID felt it was time to begin refunding the Palestinian NGO sector and reprioritizing community development initiatives.

While NGOs have obvious limitations – they can’t build roads or bridges or collect taxes or rubbish – they are capable of making real contributions to education, health, social services and citizens’ rights.

Some of these, for example, human rights, are areas typically opposed by public authorities. Others are in areas now dominated by Hamas. To create a healthy competition to both, donor institutions should dramatically expand their support for these homegrown volunteer groups. And they should do it now, while the opposing parties are sorting out their bargaining positions and polishing their rhetoric.
If they fail to seize the opportunity, the losers won’t only be the donors or Hamas. They will be the Palestinian people, and they have already lost enough.