The news that Hamas is likely to hold a parliamentary majority in the still to be declared Palestinian state is a stunning turn of democracy. It should not come as a surprise. Beyond reminding us that the very nature of democracy is that people with whom we may disagree often land in power, this victory represents a logical and in many ways predictable outcome. The move toward Hamas coming so closely on the heals of the election in Iran and the apparent rejection of secularists in Iraq makes perfect sense. We think of Hamas in terms of terrorism, but on the ground in the West Bank and Gaza, it has been the source (sometimes the only source) of social services that connect to the real needs of ordinary people. Conversely, Arafat and his successors have spent decades skimming and scheming to better their own condition (the late leader is said to have socked away many millions in foreign banks). They are more known for their corruption than for bettering the lives of citizens. Finally, and this is painful to say, Israel’s holding on to the Territories from which it should have exited years ago has not surprisingly hardened the opposition and made heroes out of its most extreme factions.
Religion plays a large and disturbing role in all of this, both the narrow story of yesterday’s election and the larger picture. Jews, like me, have a special interest and stake in the survival of Israel where, beyond its history, many of us have family. Everyone, ourselves included, have an even larger stake in the big picture which threatens the entire world. Today’s geopolitical landscape is dominated by a religious right which, more than anything else, dictates the course of events. It is said that we entered Iraq because of oil or because our President didn’t so much want to vindicate his father as to show him up. Both are probably true. But equally so is the fact that the people making decisions in Washington these days follow a specific evangelical religious agenda. Whatever nice things they may say about Moslems, they are replaying the Crusades. At the very least, they believe (and probably rightly so) that the acts of terror which have so taken over our lives are religious based, or at the very least use a certain kind of religious ideology to legitimize violent action. When Islamists talk of infidels, there is no question about who they mean. This is not to suggest that it is exclusively against Christians and Jews – the Taliban destroyed irreplaceable Buddha’s in Afghanistan – but there is no question about their primary focus. The unmistakable shift toward fundamentalism in the Arab world, which mirrors extreme social conservatism here, coincides with ever increasing danger. These are not simply people with deeply held personal beliefs, but ones who seek to turn back the world clock and do it with both aggressive militarism and unbridled hate rhetoric. In the case of Palestine (still the Territories), Israel would be long gone were it not for the Jewish religious fundamentalists who, with Ariel Sharon’s encouragement, settled into occupied land not as temporary caretakers but as permanent residents. These are the people who killed Rabin and who, after his remarkable turn around, gloated about Sharon’s career ending illness. Now we have the spectacle of two religiously extreme groups physically sitting in the same place, an explosive situation to say the least.
In the early days of Israel’s existence a group of Jewish terrorists found themselves sitting not in but at the edges of power. Moderate, but nonetheless strong, secularists dominated the landscape for years. But those militants, after making alliance with the ultra-orthodox, ultimately took power. They still maintain considerable strength and what effect this will have on the soon to come Israeli vote is still unknown. Make no mistake Bibi will try to make the most of it. But it is this history that could give us some reason for hope. It was after all the onetime terrorist Menahem Begin who accomplished the first real breakthrough toward peace and it was his disciple, Ariel Sharon, who took the first step toward returning land in Gaza. If real peace ever comes, these men from the extreme will share much of the credit. There will be a lot of tough rhetoric in the days to come and perhaps even an extended period of great continued unrest. Hamas will likely engage in the predictable posturing – a common problem for outsiders who take the reigns of governance for the first time. But words don’t feed people and ultimately their success will depend on improving Palestinian lives. One can only hope that, once in office, they will take a page from Israel’s own history and that whoever emerges as their primary leader might be a Begin is disguise. Hopefully sooner rather than later.