Assessing the Palestinian Elections

Middle East specialist Shibley Telhami is of the view that in Wednesday's Palestinians elections, Hamas wins... no matter what the vote count.


There was high voter turnout today for the first Palestinian parliamentary elections in ten years. Predictions leading up to today's vote favored the ruling Fatah party, and placed the Islamist militant group Hamas at a close second. Official results are expected tomorrow.

In an Op-Ed in today's Baltimore Sun, Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami writes that no matter what the actual results are, Hamas wins. Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, at the University of Maryland. He joins us now on the line from New York. Nice to have you on the program, as always.

PROFESSOR SHIBLEY TELHAMI (Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland): Good to be with you again.

CONAN: So, Hamas wins, even if it comes in second?

Prof. TELHAMI: Oh, there's no question. They're going to have a significant representation in the parliament, probably around 30% of the seats, no matter what. And that gives them a lot of clout, it gives them center stage. Fatah is not going to have a majority, no matter what, and they're going to need a coalition government; whether it' going to be with Hamas or with independents. And they're going to be, certainly, open to negotiating with Hamas, under particular conditions. So, that puts Hamas in a very strong position.

But having said that, Hamas now plays a different role. I mean, up until now, they really have avoided playing at national politics. They didn't run in the presidential election, they didn't run in the parliamentary elections before. Now, they're up there, and they're going to be held up to a different standard by the Palestinian public. They're going to need to deliver, whether it's at home, in terms of services, or abroad. And I think that puts them in a new position that they're not accustomed to.

CONAN: And, it also, if they do join the coalition and join the government, that puts them in a position to endorse a whole bunch of things they may not be happy to endorse.

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, exactly. This is part of the problem for them, obviously. I think if they see that their support is really not based on the foreign policy agenda or on militant agenda, but on their social services, they may be more flexible. And they've already begun sending messages that are more conciliatory toward the Israelis.

But I think, you know, you have to look at this, not so much in terms of Hamas or even Fatah, I think you have to look at it as an end of an era, in a way. And you have some kind of political and social revolution taking place, not only in the Palestinian areas, but also in Israel. You have parallelism going on, here. This is the end of the era of PLO dominance that has dominated policy and politics for several decades now.

And people have had enough with the existing power structure. They've had enough of the ruling elites. And I think, if you look at the actual dynamic and the process, even though Hamas's rise certainly poses challenges, both for the authority and for the International community and Israel, in reality, the actual process has been heavily democratic. Those are the most contested elections, high turnout, large number of women candidates, unprecedented. And what you see is a vibrant political process.

And if you have, as a result, more policy and representation, any coalition that is stronger and has broad support is in a better position to negotiate than a weak government that does not have public support.

CONAN: This government, in other words, after this election, and out from under the aura of Yasser Arafat, of course, this is the first election since he passed away, this is going to have legitimacy in a whole new way.

Prof. TELHAMI: Yes, I mean, Mahmoud Abbas, of course, was elected directly by the Palestinian people, and so he is an elected President. But the reality of it is that, when you look at what has happened since he's been elected, he cannot really claim to have delivered anything. I mean, economically, things have not gone well, and certainly in Gaza, they've been even worse since Israel's withdrawal. He cannot claim that the Israeli withdrawal resulted because of his negotiation, this was a unilateral withdrawal planned on Arafat's clock.

And Hamas claimed responsibility for it. So, while he was elected, he just didn't, he couldn't say that his relationship with the U.S., which has been the central relationship for him in persuading the Palestinians that they should stick with him, he couldn't make the case that this has delivered much for him. And that's where he is right now, I think. And the question is whether Hamas is going to meet him halfway, or it'll decide to play opposition; which is, of course, an open question for them. In some ways, it's a more comfortable role for them to play.

CONAN: We're talking with Shibley Telhami about today's Palestinian elections. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Ah, Mahmoud Abbas, you were talking about him earlier. He was, of course, I guess, the United States-backed candidate in this election. And you wrote in your Op-Ed piece in the Baltimore Sun today about the difficulties of being America's man in this context, as it is, to some degree, the kiss of death.

Prof. TELHAMI: Well, it isn't exactly the kiss of death, in the sense that, I think it's a mixed blessing, really. I mean, when you look at it, I mean, the fact that the Administration changed its policy, which has been, for the past few years, taking credit for all the American projects, as a way of, you know, saying America is doing this for you. When it came to public services in much of the Middle East, they decided to do a few that were just labeled Palestinian authority without the U.S. taking credit. Well, why did they do that? Obviously, in part, to help Abu Masen, but also, not associate him with the U.S. And that is, in a way, recognition of the credibility issue that the U.S. now has.

I think, in the end, the public really isn't going to punish Abu Masen for American support. I, Palestinians, while they question American position and American foreign policy, most of them know that America is indispensable in this process. They want America to be involved. When you ask Palestinians, they say, we want America to be involved. If Abu Masen could deliver positive American involvement, I don't people would punish him, I think they'd reward him.

His problem has been that he hasn't been able to show much for it yet, and in the Gaza case, particularly. I think it was an opportunity, immediately after the withdrawal, the withdrawal had been on the drawing map for a long time. If we had had all the plans to go in the morning after, to address some of the big economic issues, 50% unemployment, 600 per capita income, hopelessness, if we had major projects that revived hope immediately, not just the pledges that have been put there and have not been implemented, it could have helped him. If he had taken a position on settlements around Jerusalem, that could have helped him. I think those are the sort of things that really count in the end, not so much the associate between Abu masen and the United States, as such.

CONAN: A lot of people here are casting this election today as a choice for Palestinians between pursuing peace, with Fatah, or confrontation, with Hamas.

Prof. TELHAMI: I think that's a mistake. I mean, obviously, Hamas, Israel is not going to recognize Hamas if it continues to call for its dismantlement, and continues to attack civilians, and not differentiate between soldier and civilian. Israel's not going to do it; the U.S. isn't going to do it. And it will be Hamas' decision, to either modify or just stick with its position, and then it'll be the Palestinian public's position to decide what they're going to do, and that's the way things operate.

The assumption, I think, is that the issue of recognizing Israel was not the issue that drove this election. I think that the vast majority of Palestinians still want a negotiated settlement. Hamas knows that. And a negotiated settlement means recognizing Israel as a state, side by side with the Palestinian state and the West Bank and Gaza.

That's going to be their problem, I think. To the extent that they have support, that support came from frustration with the ruling elites, the Fatah PLO elite, and from the social services they provide; not so much from their foreign policy, one can argue. And I think that's the kind of lesson they're going to have to internalize, and figure out how to translate it into political clout.

CONAN: We just have a few seconds left. But, in some respects, Hamas has set a parallel structure, as you said; their social services, but also their armed wing. Are they eventually going to have to recognize that those have to be melded within the state if they are to be part of the government?

Prof. TELHAMI: No question. I think, you know, no state is going to negotiate with a party that calls for its own destruction. And no state is going to negotiate with a party that is going to unleash attacks on civilians. I mean, I think that's the, and frankly, the Israelis, for a long time, took the same position, vis-à-vis the PLO. But, the PLO, when the Israelis said, well, we're prepared to talk to the PLO, recognize you, as long as you modify your position on those issues, a deal was made. I don't think that this is necessarily forthcoming with Hamas, but it's not something that's unimaginable.

CONAN: Shibley Telhami, thanks very much for being with us today.

Prof. TELHAMI: My pleasure.

CONAN: Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, and he spoke to us today on the phone from New York City.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington.

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