A parallel dilemma: to govern or to fight?

Although it is always dangerous to make too simplistic a comparison between Northern Ireland and anywhere else in the world Mark Devenport puts his finger on one very precise parallel: the internal challenge of overwhelming electoral success of a fundamentalist political project. Of the important caveats he mentions, another couple could be added. That is: Hamas is the undisputed leader of opinion in their own polity; and two, it is walking straight into a position where it will immediately be expected to exercise fiscal power. The second represents a creative tension still noticeably absent from Northern Ireland’s political game.Today’s lead editorial in the FT picks up on this point:

…the US should not retreat from its strategic insight: that it is not democracy that creates extremism, but tyranny and the pervasive sense of injustice caused by running sores such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A tilt back to supporting Arab strongmen and Israeli intransigence is no answer.

Nor should Washington and its western and Arab allies exaggerate the extent to which Palestinians were voting for rejectionism so much as punishing the corruption and incompetence of Fatah. All calculations should start from the fact that between two-thirds and three-quarters of Palestinians have regularly backed a two-state solution.

That said, Hamas militants are generally not to be found among them – and they are about to form a government. The response to them should emphasise that democracy is not just about voting, but about seeking institutional responses and upholding the rule of law. If they are pragmatic, so should we be. It may be easier for the Europeans than the Americans to take the lead on this, as they have done on Iran.

Short-term, Hamas must extend its truce. It must also formally forswear attacks on civilians. It is not essential it recognises Israel: the Irish constitution did not recognise British jurisdiction over Northern Ireland for 60 years. What is essential is that Hamas behaves as a responsible government.

By the same token, the US and close allies such as the UK should stop deferring to the unilateralism whereby Israel is setting new borders to an enlarged state. That voided Fatah’s last plausible claim to power: its own ability to negotiate a solution to the occupation. Hamas too faces a dilemma: whether to govern or to fight. Let’s not make it easy for them.

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