Let Hamas Sink or Swim on Its Own

By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN

New York Times

February 17, 2006

RAMALLAH

What do you do when good things happen to bad people?

That is the key question raised by the stunning election of a Hamas majority in the Palestinian Parliament, which will be sworn in Saturday. This moment has the potential to open some new, intriguing possibilities for a long-term settlement, or truce, in Israeli-Palestinian relations. And it has the potential to produce utter chaos. We're juggling grenades here, so please, everyone, no sudden movements.

And no illusions, either: Hamas is responsible for unspeakable suicidal violence against Israeli civilians. Israel would be fully justified in saying that the only correct policy toward Hamas today is a fight to the death.

But would that be smart right now? If Israel truly wants to get rid of Hamas, or at least see it disarmed, the only people who can do that effectively are the Palestinians. They have voted Hamas in — in a fair election that President Bush insisted should take place.

If Hamas is going to fail now in leading the Palestinian Authority, it is crucial that it be seen to fail on its own — because it can't transform itself from a terror group into a ruling body delivering peace, security and good government for Palestinians — not because Israel and the U.S. never gave it a chance.

"Any minute that it is evident to the Palestinian public that Hamas is being forced to fail will guarantee that any future elections will only produce another Hamas victory," said the Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki.

And by the way, if Hamas is forced to fail, who is to say that the Palestinians will ever be able to hold another election? You could have prolonged turmoil.

For that reason, Mr. Shikaki argued, both Israel and the U.S. should remain open to the idea of Hamas's becoming part of a Palestinian national unity government under the current president, Mahmoud Abbas — a Fatah moderate who embraces peace with Israel.

"We want to provide Hamas a [Palestinian] context within which to begin to moderate its views — without being forced to do so by the West and Israel," Mr. Shikaki said. If Hamas is going to change, it will change only if it is forced to confront the reality that it can get so much more for Palestinians by negotiating with Israel than by fighting Israel.

Every poll shows that the main reasons Hamas won were that Palestinians wanted more security, less corruption and better governance — not an Islamic state.

Hamas officials are signaling that they know they will have to confront this clash between their ideology and what Palestinians need today. As a West Bank Hamas spokesman, Farhat Assad, remarked to me in Ramallah: "Like others, we understand that politics is not based on principles only. But it is also based on interests."

Who knows whether any of this is true. But Israel has an enormous interest in testing Hamas's ability to evolve. Because if Hamas keeps to the current cease-fire, focuses on better governance and begins to tacitly, but not formally, support a negotiating process with Israel, the benefit to Israel would be enormous.

For the first time, the whole "Palestinian street," Hamas and Fatah, would be represented in the negotiations, making any agreement with Israel so much more legitimate.

As the Israeli political theorist Yaron Ezrahi noted, "Israelis used to say that one inch given by [Ariel] Sharon's Likud was worth a kilometer given by Labor. We now have a similar situation with the Palestinians. ... Any agreement by Hamas is worth a lot more than a much more agreeable agreement by people who can't deliver."

Israel was obsessed with getting the P.L.O. to renounce its charter, but in the end, that did not affect Yasir Arafat's real behavior one whit. That's why, regardless of the conditions Israel lays down for allowing funds to flow to a Hamas-led government or negotiating with it, Israel needs to ask itself this: What would impress Israelis most — if Hamas recognized the Jewish state today and sang Hatikva, the Israeli national anthem, or if it maintained the cease-fire and the negotiating process?

I think if Hamas recognized Israel today, as some in Israel demand, no Israelis would trust a word. Why would they? The only way Israelis will trust any such Hamas words is if they follow a change in Hamas deeds on the ground — not precede it.

So it is critical that Israel, the U.S. and the Palestinians not get themselves up in a tree right now over words. There is nothing Hamas could say today that would reassure Israelis, but there is a lot it could do on the ground that would have a huge impact over time. That — for now — is where the test should be.

Paul Krugman is on vacation.