The Future of Hamas

The Atlantic recently asked a group of foreign-policy authorities about what lies ahead for Hamas

Q: Will the Hamas-led government remain in power over the next four years? (35 votes)

NO: 54% / YES: 46%

“No government in the Palestinian Authority is likely to last four years at the moment.”

“I suspect it will be brought down either in early elections or [by] violence.”

“No. It seems unlikely that the current government will have that kind of stability. Hamas may remain in power, but it may form a coalition with others down the road.”

“No. I doubt they will be able to sustain themselves economically, and their opposition will reorganize.”

“No, but Hamas will be a part of future governments as the leadership of Fatah passes to a new generation.”

“No. Governing is so much harder than criticizing—the popularity of Hamas (and the eradication of Israel) is a fantasy. Either Hamas will behave more responsibly, hurting itself with the Palestinian base, or it will continue to exist on another planet, while Israel will still be there. Either way, trouble is ahead.”

“No. But it is likely to be a major constituent in an unstable Palestinian government for the foreseeable future.”

“Yes. Fatah has been discredited, and Palestinians are looking for an alternative.”

“Yes. I believe that the Israeli government will conclude that its short-term interests are best served by having a Hamas-led government in control and will operate accordingly: it will not take actions that would lead to a total collapse of the Hamas regime; it will not provide covert or diplomatic support to groups organizing to replace Hamas; and it will point to Hamas radicalism and corruption as justifications of Israeli policies. Given the deadlock of Israeli politics, it could hardly have a better Palestinian government.”

Q: If the Hamas-led government stays in power, will it:

A. Adopt a less belligerent stance toward Israel, opening up new opportunities for peace agreements?
B. Continue to be openly and implacably hostile to Israel, resulting in continued (and perhaps escalating) violence between the two sides? (32 votes)

A.: 69% / B.: 31%

“The Hamas-led government will become somewhat less hostile toward Israel, though this will depend in large measure on how the Israelis respond to the new realities in the Palestinian Authority. It will also depend importantly on the extent to which this new government can deliver real improvements in the basic condition of the Palestinians (e.g. jobs and some improvement in their treatment by the Israelis). It is not likely to be able to do this without a measurable softening of its rhetoric toward Israel.”

“If Hamas consolidates power over the coming year in office, it will then become less belligerent in its succeeding months in office. Much also depends, however, on Israeli policy.”

“Hamas’s rhetoric will be about the same, but practicalities will mean a less belligerent posture. Hamas will remain focused on improving the lives of Palestinians.”

“It is an open question whether Hamas will soften its rhetoric to a degree that will satisfy Israel. If it does so only partially, then Israel may respond harshly, leading to escalation on both sides.”

“I think that they will belligerently adopt a less belligerent stance. They understand that their popularity is based on popular perceptions that they can deliver in terms of improving Palestinian governance and standards of living, and this requires some degree of tacit cooperation with Israel. However, they will not want to actually make peace, especially after Israel unilaterally pulls back from most of the West Bank, as seems likely.”

“The real answer is that Hamas will remain formally opposed to Israel and will not engage in peace process negotiations, but it will focus on state building in the Palestinian area and not on violent resistance against Israel.”

“I suspect the answer will be somewhere in between: Hamas will remain rhetorically hostile to Israel but be careful not to stage large attacks that will result in massive retaliation. I doubt there will be a peace agreement, but Israel will continue with its policy of unilateral disengagement from the West Bank.”

“Hamas will likely remain hostile to Israel in rhetoric and as a matter of official policy, but that does not necessarily presage intensified violence. Hamas could actually moderate its domestic actions as it is compelled to govern effectively in order to be re-elected. It may or may not then alter its policy towards Israel simultaneously. But whether it chooses to escalate the violence is an independent variable, in my estimation.”

“The more likely outcome will be that Hamas will continue to be openly hostile to Israel while violence diminishes, because Hamas calculates that for now, at least, violence does not serve its ends, and Israelis opt to move toward pre-1967 borders.”

“There’s an obvious additional option: Hamas will continue to be implacably hostile, but less openly. Yasir Arafat learned eventually that if he spoke like a liberal, he could do almost any hostile thing he wanted and not get criticized. Hamas may tone down its rhetoric and learn to use some ambiguous liberal-sounding phrases in English – e.g., talking about the Palestinians’ legitimate rights and the desire for a just peace. That way it won’t be openly hostile, but it also won’t be creating opportunities for peace agreements, much less peace itself.”

Q: Do you agree or disagree with the following statements?

1. The success of a Hamas-led government would likely help Islamic extremist causes throughout the Middle East. (31 votes)

DISAGREE: 52% / AGREE: 48%

“Disagree. I do not think the fortunes of Hamas will have much impact—one way or the other—on extremist causes elsewhere.”

“Disagree. To be successful in terms of policy, Hamas would have to be far less extreme, thus not providing a model that other extremists want to follow.”

“If success means governing responsibly and not bringing ruin upon one's people, then the success of a Hamas-led government would also help the cause of democracy in the Middle East.”

“No, because its success will be unrelated to its extremism.”

“The success of a Hamas-led government will require a more pragmatic approach toward Israel and a perceptible willingness to accept Israel's existence as an objective fact. Under those circumstances, I think it is likely that such "success" will be an important influence tempering the more extreme positions taken by Islamic extremists in the region, though this is likely to depend on events in each country.”

“Yes. If success means staying in power while retaining extremist views and violent practices, then their success will help extremist causes.”

“Yes. How could it not? The danger looms largest for Jordan, then Egypt.”

“I agree, but it would help the less extreme wing of the extremists—i.e. those who believe that you can use ballots rather than bullets to gain power.”

“If success is responsible governance and reelection, then it may hurt extremist causes, as Hamas will have been compelled to moderate. If success is implementation of radical policies, it could help extremists.”

“If a Hamas-led government does not change and is successful with an unreformed radical agenda, then that obviously will help other Islamic extremist causes. But we should not prematurely foreclose the possibility that the need to succeed becomes the handmaiden for change within Hamas. That is the democratic hope we want to try to protect. We do so by trying to ensure that Hamas is compelled to play by the democratic rules of the game.”

2. The collapse of a Hamas-led government—particularly under Western pressure—would likely harm democratic causes throughout the Middle East. (32 votes)

DISAGREE: 56% / AGREE: 44%

“I generally disagree. Some will lay blame for the collapse of Hamas on Western pressure. But the collapse is likely to be messy and confusing, making it difficult to attribute it to outside pressure as opposed to internal strife and lack of institutional capacity.”

“If their collapse comes because their own people consider them failures as leaders and they allow themselves to be thrown out of power by democratic means, that should help democratic causes throughout the Middle East. The main benefit of democracy is not that it guarantees good government—it clearly does not—but it allows people to change their leaders without civil war.”

“A successful Hamas government will definitely help Islamist groups, but not necessarily the most extreme Islamists. It will help those Islamists who think that they should make political accommodations and join a quasi-democratic process. If the Hamas government were to collapse, much would depend on the circumstances. If it collapsed as a result of its own incompetence, this will not harm democratic causes; in fact, it would help liberals. But if it were seen to collapse solely as a result of outside pressure this would further undermine the West’s legitimacy in pushing democracy.”

“Responsibility for governing will tend to have a moderating influence on Hamas. Ultimately, the demands of participatory politics will require the government to deliver to the people—and that is far more likely when relations with Israel are moving in a positive rather than a negative direction. There may well be tensions and splits within the governing party, but the overwhelming desire for positive change will likely ensure that the moderates prevail.”

“It will only harm democratic causes if the U.S. is seen as precipitating or engineering the collapse of Hamas.”

“Yes, because it will increase the perception in the Middle East of hypocrisy and double standards by the West.”

“The U.S. cannot credibly support democracy and then refuse to deal with the consequences.”

“The collapse of a Hamas-led government under pressure from the U.S. will reinforce those who doubt that the U.S. commitment to democracy is much more than a replacement for the our failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.”

“I agree. This is the dirty little secret that the neo-conservatives cannot begin to answer. The corrupt, tyrannical, autocratic leaders in the region tend to be more pro-American than the Arab street. That’s the heart of the matter.”

“Hamas can only succeed by becoming pragmatic in action—delivering the goods to the Palestinian people—regardless of its public stance towards Israel. An Islamic organization that is effective and pragmatic in action, however unreasonable in official pronouncements, would be acceptable, even helpful.”

“If Hamas fails, it should be because of its own policies and contradictions, not because of Western actions. If Hamas can blame its failure on the West and not on its own inability to govern effectively, it will only create yet another anti-Western myth and legend and postpone the inevitable confrontation with reality that is so badly needed.”

“The limited attractiveness of democracy to the ruling elites in the region was diminished by the Hamas victory. Its early passing is not going to make the rulers more interested in democracy, just grateful that God the Most Merciful helped them to dodge the bullet this time. For the emerging middle class I would make much the same argument. For the radical element, such a collapse would only confirm their belief that democracy is just a sham to keep the same ruling elites in power and the conspiratorial way of the Muslim Brotherhood is the way to both [achieving] power and holding on to power once gained.”

“Paradoxically, I think both are true: if Hamas succeeds, others will ask, ‘Why not our own Islamists?’ But if Hamas fails, especially if it is believed that the Hamas government failed because of a lack of Western support, this will hurt the cause of advancing democracy across the region.”

"The questions posed do not exhaust the possibilities. I believe that the success of a democratically elected Hamas will encourage the spread of democracy in the region because it will demonstrate to Islamists that there is a legitimate political course available to them, that democracy can work to address their concerns. The collapse of a Hamas government, conversely, might harm radical Islam more than it harms the cause of democracy, because it will demonstrate the incapacity to govern of an avowed radical Islamist group."

POLL PARTICIPANTS: Kenneth Adelman, Ronald Asmus, Samuel Berger, Max Boot, Stephen Bosworth, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Daniel Byman, Eliot Cohen, Ivo Daalder, James Dobbins, Lawrence Eagleburger, Douglas Feith, John Gaddis, Robert Gallucci, Jay Garner, Leslie Gelb, Marc Grossman, John Hamre, Gary Hart, Bruce Hoffman, John Hulsman, Robert Hunter, Robert Kagan, David Kay, Charles Kupchan, John Lehman, James Lindsay, Jessica Mathews, William Nash, Joseph Nye, Carlos Pascual, Thomas Pickering, Kenneth Pollack, Joseph Ralston, Susan Rice, Wendy Sherman, and James Steinberg.