The Democracy Game

 This week in the magazine, David Remnick reports from the West Bank on the rise to power of the Palestinian militant group Hamas. Here, with Amy Davidson, he discusses Hamas and the Middle East.

AMY DAVIDSON: A few weeks ago, Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States, and the European Union, won a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. Their victory was a surprise—even, as you write, to Hamas itself. What happened?

DAVID REMNICK: The simple question of why Hamas won yields a completely complex answer. The best that I can tell, from talking to a lot of Hamas people in the West Bank and Gaza—and other journalists have come to a similar conclusion—is that Hamas won because of an enormous protest vote against the Palestinian Authority, which has been the government of this proto-state since 1994. What were they protesting against? Any number of things, but first and foremost, corruption. Officials in Fatah, the secular movement begun by Arafat—people who run the bureaucracies in Gaza and the West Bank—are seen, from the top down, as corrupt in the deepest sense. And they’re also immensely unpopular because these bureaucracies don’t get run very well and daily life is impossible. You’d also have to say that many Palestinians were profoundly frustrated by the lack of progress in the P.A.’s dealings with Israel: the Oslo process has collapsed. Palestinians saw no progress or desire for concessions coming from the Israeli side under either Arafat or Mahmoud Abbas. And certainly some voters also admired Hamas for its role in taking up arms against Israel, in carrying out operations against Israeli soldiers and citizens.

You wrote about Jibril Rajoub, a senior Fatah official, and his brothers, Yasir and Nayef, who are Hamas officials. One Palestinian you spoke to said that those brothers together gave “the shape of history” in the area. How so?

I’m certainly not the first journalist to look at the Rajoub brothers—in fact, my colleague, Jeff Goldberg, did a piece on the Rajoub brothers some years ago, for the New York Times magazine. But at the time, Jibril Rajoub was the more powerful one, and it was a curiosity that he had a brother who was religious and a regional leader of Hamas. That rather neat story has been turned on its head by these elections. A number of factors—including the failure of the Oslo accords, poverty, isolation from globalization, and a general rise in Islamic practice throughout the region—have led to an upturn in Islamism in the Palestinian territories. The important thing to remember is that when the Soviet Union collapsed, in 1991, all sorts of things went out of whack. One of them was that the Arab national movement could no longer depend on socialism as an ideological force, or on the Soviet Union as a political force to back it. So it had to search elsewhere. And Islam is what it came to. For many people, it was the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt and in Jordan, and other Islamic movements throughout the region that served as an ideological foundation.

Has the relationship between Palestinian nationalism and Islam also changed? Has the Palestinian identity become more and more Islamic?

I don’t want to overestimate it, just going by the January 25th elections, and I don’t want to say that Palestinian nationalism has become an Islamic movement, full stop. I think that would be a mistake. But certainly the influence of Islam has increased dramatically, and it was clear to the Palestinian leadership—it was clear to Arafat—that it was something they had to contend with. It showed up forcefully in the first intifada. When the intifada began, Islamic leaders were mostly concerned with spreading the faith, but when the rocks started flying, in 1987, Sheikh Yassin, who would become the leader and the spiritual head of Hamas, recognized that a lot of his young men were getting involved. Yassin and his circle did not want to be left out or cast aside as irrelevant in the struggle against the Israelis. And so Hamas was formed, and it became a player in the initifada. And then it became an immensely more important player in the second intifada, at the turn of the century. Hamas brought the weapon of suicide bombing into the game in the mid-nineties and, ironically, was largely responsible for the victory of the right-wing Likud candidate Bibi Netanyahu in the 1996 Israeli elections.

You call your piece “The Democracy Game,” which is how some in Hamas have referred to the electoral process. That suggests a certain cynicism on their part.

That’s the big question secularists throughout the Islamic world have: If an Islamist group comes to power in an election, will there be another election? In other words, are Islamist groups using the mechanism of democracy to gain power and then hold it, or are they playing the democracy game in a better sense—in other words, as legitimate, competing powers in an ongoing democratic process? That, to some people, is an open question. Naturally, the Hamas leaders say that they are competing in these elections, and if they lose they will abide by the rules.

Spreading democracy in the Middle East is something that President Bush speaks about a lot. The implicit idea is that a democratic region will be more stable, and also friendlier to the West.

I think what everybody is discovering is that to call elections “democracy” and to leave it at that is simplistic and even potentially dangerous. Even President Bush’s guru on these issues, Natan Sharansky, who wrote a book that was very influential on Bush’s thinking, said to me, when I was in Jerusalem last week, that the only way for this all to work is to create the conditions of democracy, and elections are only a part of that—and they’re not necessarily the first part. Again, this is a much broader and more complicated question, but what’s obvious is that democracy does not equal elections. There’s a lot more going on, a great deal more required: institution-building and the rest. On the other hand, does that create an excuse for authoritarian regimes to eliminate the seeds of democracy? Clearly, the leadership in Egypt—Hosni Mubarak—wants to turn to the United States and say, Look what happened in the West Bank and Gaza. Do you want that to happen here? Because it surely will. Recently, in elections that were quite limited in every sense, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt took around a quarter of the seats in the parliament and would do a great deal better if permitted. Does the Bush Administration want to see that happen? Take the Iraqi elections: I doubt the Bush Administration got the result it had hoped for, and certainly democracy itself is not yet at hand. Some of the early pronouncements about democracy-building in the Middle East now seem, in the rearview mirror, incredibly simplistic.

So how do you make the Middle East safe for democracy?

This is a gigantic subject: how democracies develop; what time is necessary, what preconditions are required; do you have to go through a period of enlightened authoritarianism, as some thinkers suggest. These are pressing questions everywhere, especially in places like Russia and the former Soviet Union, too. Russia had a breakthrough moment in 1991—the totalitarian structures, the imperial structures seemed hollow at the center once certain pressures were brought to bear, once certain freedoms were extended. But the aftermath has proved to be unbelievably complicated, and Vladimir Putin is in the midst of carrying out what’s usually called “soft” authoritarianism. Not so soft if you are a political opponent of any kind! So this is an enormously complex, potentially dangerous process. Hamas is, at the moment, certainly having a very good time, saying to the United States and Europe and Israel: Look, you wanted us to be democrats, we had a transparent election, and we won. And they did.

Speaking about the preconditions of democracy—like freedom of the press—you write that one of the huge topics of discussion in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip during your trip wasn’t the elections but the Danish cartoons. How did they play there?

You did not see the level of violence you saw in Beirut and in Damascus. But clearly the religious leaders and others had gotten the message. It’s hard for me to believe that very many people who were at these demonstrations actually saw these cartoons. They, like many others, were responding to the imprecations of their leaders to get out on the streets and demonstrate. I went to Friday morning prayers in Dura, a town of about thirty-five thousand people, and the imam there is Sheikh Nayef Rajoub—Jibril Rajoub’s brother. This was the first Friday after the elections, so I thought I’d hear him talk about Hamas. But, no, the subject of the day was the Danish cartoons. What was interesting is what it meant to him and, by extension, to the people in the mosque: for them, it was a symbol of the impunity with which the West insults the Islamic world, power having its way. And any notion of freedom of press was seen as a lame and irrelevant excuse.

You write that while you were in the mosque, people asked if you were Danish.

I don’t look very Danish. But I don’t think people in Hebron and in Dura have a lot of experience with people from Denmark. So I got asked that quite a lot, and my translator, thank God, was able to explain—and usually, by the way, being an American is no great bargain in situations like that. But on that particular Friday, it was good enough.

Let me ask you about being an American in places like that. How do you weigh the risks?

I’m not only American, I’m Jewish. And I’ve never—I don’t want to pretend I’ve spent years in the occupied territories; all told, a matter of weeks—but I’ve never had a problem. Colleagues of mine have had terrible things happen—the photographer I was with in the West Bank was shot in the knee by an Israeli soldier during the intifada—but it is not to be compared to Iraq, not even remotely like what George Packer and Jon Lee Anderson and everybody else in Iraq experiences. (I’m talking now only about reporters, not about ordinary people, who suffer all kinds of privations.) In some ways, covering this story in Israel and the occupied territories is geographically easy—you can get in a car in Jerusalem in the morning and you set out for Gaza or Hebron or wherever, and you go through the checkpoint, and because you’re holding an American passport you go through fine, and through the use of fixers—that great and valuable tool of foreign correspondents everywhere—you are able to meet with the leaders of Hamas or Fatah and are treated civilly. My colleagues in Iraq and many other places can’t say that even remotely.

You’re also an editor. What about the decisions you make, with regard to security, in that role?

It’s very hard for me, because I’ve been a correspondent, and still do it from time to time, and it’s painful for me to ask correspondents to do something that I might not do, or no longer do. This is very particular to the experience with Iraq. It worries me to death when they’re there, and their devotion to doing the work, despite the danger, is extraordinary. I try to take every precaution I can, and urge them to take every precaution that they can, and we keep in close, constant touch. But no precautions are foolproof.

Do you think the harder thing, often, is telling them that they can’t do something they want to do, because of security?

I remember when Jon Lee Anderson was in Baghdad—I think he was one of only a couple of magazine people there when the United States started bombing—there was a big question in the journalistic community about whether to leave people in or take them out. And you bet I had conversations with foreign editors at the Washington Post and the New York Times, just to see what they were doing, what precautions they were taking. Jon Lee and I talked about it a lot, and he was very firm in wanting to stay. I have to trust the good sense of people who are close to the action and also more experienced—Jon Lee is infinitely more experienced than I am at figuring out what to do in Iraq. But I have to give him as much information as I can. You make these decisions the best you can, and you make them sometimes with your heart in your throat.

Back to Hamas. Some of the comments that they made to you, and that they’ve made elsewhere—it was shocking how starkly anti-Semitic they were. How deep is that strain, and how inextricable is it?

It’s a very good question. A lot of the language that sounds pathetic and absurd to our ears—the notion of worldwide conspiracies and Jews sparking everything from the French Revolution to the First World War, all of which is in the Hamas charter—is clearly a remnant of a form of anti-Semitism that was very prevalent when the Muslim Brotherhood began, this kind of atavistic clinging to the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and all the rest. I will tell you, if you ask most Hamas people about this, they don’t disavow it. It is part of the language. Now, I don’t know how to go about thinking about how that fades or disappears. Without for a second excusing that kind of bigotry, without “explaining” it to the point of saying it has no weight, I would say that the conditions of occupation, the isolation, and the surround-sound of propaganda are not exactly ideal for the rise of broadmindedness.

You also saw a Palestinian school where the girls were dressed in hijab. What does Hamas’s victory mean for Palestinian women?

The fear among some secular Palestinians is that Hamas will interpret its victory as a license to instigate social change, and maybe even coercive social change, such as having women wear hijab. The notion that I got, from reporting, is that Hamas is well aware of the limitations of its mandate, and knows that a lot of its victory is due to a protest against Fatah and not a strong mandate for theocratic legislation. Like everyone else, they know that, while Islamic practice is greater than it was, there is still a large part of the population that is secular. That said, the anxiety among some people is still there.

You write that some Israelis are gambling that Hamas, given the choice between moderation, on the one hand, and poverty and war, on the other, would choose moderation. How good a bet is that? One Palestinian you spoke to worried about how radical fundamentalism draws strength from poverty.

The context is, Israel is trying to figure out what to do now that Hamas is, at least to some extent, in power. Remember, Mahmoud Abbas is still the president of the Palestinian Authority, although Hamas is dominant in the legislature; he is still in charge of many functions, not least in negotiating with Israel (insofar as there are any negotiations).

Steve Erlanger at the Times had a very good piece the other day saying that there are now discussions in the top levels of the Israeli government, and even with the Americans, about what it should do about the taxes it collects on behalf of the Palestinians. Should it hold them up and put them in escrow? Should the European Union continue to fund the Palestinian Authority? If other tactics come into play to further isolate and impoverish Palestinian society, what would be the result? Will it cause Palestinian society to rise up and say, No more Hamas, now we’ll turn back to Fatah? Or will it further radicalize Palestinian society? That’s the gamble, and its a very significant gamble. One official, Dov Weissglas, said that Israel would be like a dietician, putting the Palestinians on a diet without starving them. They want to punish them without causing a bloodbath.

Might the experience of—as someone in your article puts it—“having to make sure that the garbage is collected” have a moderating influence on Hamas?

There is that hope or prediction, but it is far from a sure thing. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new President of Iran, was not elected to deny the Holocaust, to make threatening overtures in the direction of Israel. That was not the main platform on which Iranians voted for him. They voted for him because they saw him as the anti-poverty, anti-corruption, social-services candidate. But he’s used his mandate the way he’s used his mandate. That said, without being soft-headed about it, there is clearly debate going on within Hamas about what kind of language to use, how to pitch their rhetoric, how to play the political game vis-à-vis Israel. Their first big move has been to promote one of their own, Ismail Haniyeh, as Prime Minister. Initially they’d been talking about getting a Prime Minister who was, above all, an effective technocrat, someone who could make things work, But Haniyeh is not that. He’s simply the guy who was at the top of the national slate. So they’re not backing off their own victory, certainly not two weeks later.

What’s also of interest, speaking of Iran, is the degree to which Iran will act as a support to Hamas.

How big a concern is that now, the ties between Hamas and Iran?

Enormous. U.S. and Israeli intelligence have long believed that, in one way or another, Iran has been very helpful to Hamas. Now, again, it’s an interesting tactical question: If support diminishes from the West, will that allow Iran to fill a vacuum? I do know from conversations with military people and intelligence people in Israel that their biggest concern is Iranian influence there. Even the more liberal heads are concerned above all with chaos. There’s a very interesting scholar of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Emmanuel Sivan, who told me that the biggest danger is chaos, particularly in Gaza. Because the thing the Israelis fear is Al Qaeda moving into this whole equation. Innately, Al Qaeda and Hamas have enormous differences. Hamas is focused on national questions, on its conflict with Israel; Al Qaeda is an avant-garde, outsider group that foments disorder and fear, and is focused on the more distant enemy––it’s a very different organization. But Al Qaeda feeds on chaotic situations. It did it in Afghanistan, now it’s doing it in Iraq.

The idea of democracy has been enormously important for the Israeli center and left, in terms of why a lot of them now support a two-state solution—that Israel can’t be both a Jewish state and a democratic state, given the demographics, the size of the Palestinian population.

I think at this point what you find in the Israeli polity is a broad consensus that transcends party. Remember, the Likud Party was greatly diminished once Sharon left it and created Kadima; the Labour Party, since the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, in 1995, has also narrowed, and its leader is unpopular. What you have now is a broad Israeli consensus on the following things: the real, final settlement with the Palestinians is off in the future; what we need to do is separate the best we can, to create a kind of rough peace, Israelis here, Palestinians over there, and it has to be accomplished more or less unilaterally because the notion of a partnership has fallen through, with the collapse of the Oslo accords, the inability to deal with Arafat, and now the rise of Hamas; so we’re going to throw up this big wall and we’re going to disengage from Gaza and soon we’re going to disengage from dozens more settlements in the West Bank. That’s certainly not going to leave the Palestinians with what they wanted, or even with what was on offer at Camp David in 2000, but it’s going to create a kind of disengagement from each other, and that’s what it’s going to be for a while. The Israelis, or most of them, know that occupation is untenable: it is morally untenable, a financial and military sinkhole, a demographic disaster, and it isolates Israel from most of the world.

And if that second, Palestinian state is not democratic, if it’s a religious state—

I doubt it will be, but, one way or the other, Israel can’t dictate whether a Palestinian state becomes Islamist or not Islamist. What would they prefer? They’d of course prefer a peaceful, satisfied neighbor, but peace and satisfaction is not likely in the offing. This problem of two peoples contending for one land, the problem of how to form divisions, how to create a lasting peace, is a problem that’s going to go on for many years. The victory of Hamas, which denies the legitimacy of Israel and any agreements that were made between Israel and the P.L.O. in years past, does little to enhance the prospects of a settlement.

What can we—that is, the United States—do about it? Does the United States have a role?

The United States continues to have an enormous role in this region. The United States remains the potential broker of any settlement, whether interim or final, in the region. The question is, who are we talking with? The game got a lot more complicated for everybody, Hamas included, on January 25th. And it’s an open question on all sides about how the various players are going to behave. And the United States is otherwise occupied. It’s not a very pretty picture in Iraq.