What democracy wrought

By MARK JURKOWITZ  |  February 2, 2006

Pessimism and anger
Thanks to flawed exit polls and unforgiving deadlines, many US newspapers ran the Palestinian version of dewey defeats truman on the morning of January 26. The Boston Globe trumpeted, CLOSE FATAH WIN SEEN IN PALESTINIAN VOTE, while the Wall Street Journal’s front page declared that FATAH SURVIVED A STRONG HAMAS CHALLENGE IN PALESTINIAN VOTING. The New York Times banner headline read: HAMAS PRESSES FATAH IN PALESTINIAN VOTE, SURVEYS SAY, just as the Washington Post announced that HAMAS WINNING NEAR-PARITY WITH FATAH IN PALESTINIAN ASSEMBLY. (In view of the 2000 and 2004 US presidential elections, and now the Palestinian election, isn’t it time for news organizations to stop relying on exit polls?)

The next day, the shock of the results became the story, not only in the US but around the world. HAMAS DEFIES ALL ODDS, declared the banner headline in the Turkish Daily News. HAMAS WIN STUNS WORLD, said Toronto’s National Post. Echoed the Star Tribune in Casper, Wyoming: HAMAS SHOCKS THE WORLD. The Associated Press reported that even Israel security services projected a narrow Fatah win as the most likely result. And along with numbing surprise, came an initial wave of foggy uncertainty about the implications.

At a press briefing the day after the vote, Bush seemed genuinely torn on message and tone, and ended up emphasizing the flowering of Mideast democracy rather than Hamas’s status as a terrorist group, one that talks openly about the destruction of Israel.

The elections “remind me about the power of democracy,” he rhapsodized. “When you give people the vote ... if they’re unhappy with the status quo they’ll let you know. That’s the great thing about democracy. It provides a look into society.”

Some of the commentary broached the idea that the election gave reason for hope, if not optimism. An analysis in Time magazine online argued that with Hamas likely to concentrate initially on ending corruption and restoring “law and order,” the new government could carry out “precisely the reforms ... long demanded by the US and Israel — ensuring accountability and transparency in government, and reining in the militias.” In a provocative headline that heightened the ambiguity surrounding the election results, a piece posted on the Web site of the liberal Israeli daily Ha’aretz asked readers DOES HAMAS STILL WANT YOU DEAD? — the suggestion being that the answer might be no. A more conventional view, which appeared on the January 27 editorial page of the New York Times, struck a somber tone but held out that fork-in-the-road scenario by concluding “Hamas has a choice between governing and terror.”

Not everyone, of course, thought so. Writing on January 26 for the online version of the New Republic, Yossi Klein Halevi warned that “the celebration of mass murderers as religious martyrs and educational role models, promoted by both Fatah and Hamas, has now reached its inevitable conclusion in the national suicide of the Palestinian people.”

Within a few days, it was Halevi’s angry pessimism that became the more dominant theme. And by the time the Sunday-morning TV talk shows rolled around, official US reaction to the Hamas win had hardened and congealed.

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Maybe Bibi?
Former Israeli prime minister and current Likud Party leader Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu was quick to try to capitalize on the Hamas victory, dubbing the new Palestinian entity "Hamastan." Israeli elections are scheduled for March 28 and the conventional wisdom is that Hamas's win could be good news for hard-liner Netanyahu, whose party was badly trailing Ariel Sharon's new centrist Kadima faction - now led by Ehud Olmert - going into last week's Paelstinian balloting. According to one Israeli poblication, a new poll released this week after the Palestinian election showed Likud winning 16 seats (up from 13 last week) in the 120-member Knesset.

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