Analysis / Popularity Is Suddenly Important for Hamas

The Hamas leadership made an interesting distinction yesterday: "This is the first time a ruling party has accused the opposition of falsifying election results." Indeed, Hamas' achievement - it was not a victory - was that it managed to undermine the conventional wisdom that the there was no real competition for the ruling party, the party that formed the Palestinian national liberation movement, Fatah.

Hamas did not win a majority on the municipal councils, and their wins in the large cities cannot be considered an unequivocal victory for the Hamas, since many voters gave their votes to fellow clan members who happened to belong to Hamas. But there can be no ignoring the basic political breakdown in which Hamas has about one-third of the electorate, with Fatah and the other, smaller parties, the rest.

This division, even if it is not ideologically precise, and even if it still enables the building of political coalitions by rivals, now foreshadows the Palestinian Legislative Council elections. On that basis, it is possible to anticipate that the two-thirds/one-third breakdown will remain for the PLC elections in July. Practically speaking, that means that the two main movements, Fatah and Hamas, will have to make ideological and political concessions to sustain the Palestinian state.

As far as Fatah is concerned, the vote means a loss of power, but not a loss of control, and therefore the relative success of Hamas could force Hamas to go even further in adopting a political-pragmatic approach and not an ideological-dogmatic one, at least until the establishment of the Palestinian state.

In the elections, as in the first round of voting for local councils, and in Hamas' plans to take part in the parliamentary elections, Hamas is going through a process that most of the religious movements in the region are now going through. It's a process in which political achievements are important in and of themselves, even if they have an ideological price.

For the last five years, Hezbollah has been going through a process of politicization that will eventually have to provide a replacement for the excuse of war against Israel; the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is expressing support for Hosni Mubarak even though they oppose him ideologically; and Hamas is participating in processes that are the result of the Oslo accords, which Hamas regards as the original sin of the Palestinian movement.

Those who look carefully at the Hamas covenant nowadays will find it difficult to identify any of its elements in the movement's recent behavior: It is cooperating with Fatah in the cease-fire and not waging war against Israel; the slogan of a religious state is not being heard at all in public; it is cooperating with the head of the Palestinian Authority, who was elected in a vote that was considered the result of Israeli and American pressure; and now it's participating in municipal and parliamentary elections while the Israeli occupation continues.

Armed struggle does remain an option for Hamas, but it is an option that the movement will have to consider carefully, since it would entail more than renewing the war with Israel. It would risk their popularity and involve a clash with the two-thirds of the Palestinian public that gave its vote to either Fatah or one of the other parties, and not to Hamas. The need to read the popularity map politically is something new for Hamas, and that might be the greatest achievement of all in these elections.