Hamas’ electoral victory, although billed as a “surprise” or a “shock” by many newspapers, did not really come as a major surprise to most observers of Palestinian politics. In fact, the whole reason why Abu Mazin seemed to have entertained postponing the elections for a while was directly related to his firm conviction that holding the elections at this point in time will result in a surrounding victory by Hamas.
Still, we have to realize that Hamas’s victory does not come as mandate for holy war against Israel. Rather, the holy war that the majority of the Palestinians want is one against corruption and inefficient rule and for improving the quality of life and the living standards of the average Palestinian.
As such, should Hamas attempts to use this victory to increase its hostile activities against Israel, it will in fact be shooting itself in the foot, though this is indeed the kind of course that many Hamas leaders seem disposed to advocate at this stage, especially those currently living outside the territories (who do have quite a few backers inside as well).
So, what are the possible scenarios here, and what are the implications for the Syrian regime?
Scenario One: “Moderate” Hamas leaders could manage to have the upper hand, meaning that while negotiations with Israel are not likely at this stage (the Israeli authorities, too, seem not too interested in that, also at this stage), economic ties will continue, and focus will be put on living up to campaign promises of cleaning up the administrative hierarchy in the territories and improving the living conditions of the Palestinians. This situation could go one for months, if not years, provided Hamas moderates continue to keep their radical factions in check, and provided that Israel refrains from any unilateral action that can strengthen the hands of Hamas radicals. We can call this the Palestinians First Scenario, which is, of course, the ideal and quite unlikely scenario at this stage, where a certain stalemate is created paving the way for eventual talk, should Hamas prove successful in their economic policies. Hamas could not succeed here, and give the Palestinians something real that they can lose, then go ahead and nullify all that in a future policy of confrontation. At least, one hopes, and provided the radicals are kept in check throughout all this, of course. In this scenario, the Syrian regime does not benefit, and will likely try to play the radical card, with the support of the Iranians and Hezbollah, and failing that, it will seek to heat up the Lebanese-Israeli borders.
Scenario Two: Hamas radicals take over and begin implementing a policy of confrontation with Israel. Israel responds. The territories are quickly brought to a boil. Here we have several variations depending on both Israel’s and Syria’s response:
1) Should Israel show restraint here in the face of Hamas radicals, a serious schism could develop within Hamas, with the moderates opting to join Fatah in a new coalition, perhaps forcing a new election, one which the radicals are bound to lose. Why? Because, the real mandate that the majority of the Palestinians want to give to Hamas at this stage seems to relate, as I noted above, to internal reform issues not to confrontation with Israel. If Israel did not show restraint, an all out war could develop very easily.
2) For its part, the Syrian regime could do the rare smart thing and watch developments in the Territories from the sidelines, with Bashar & Co. focusing on internal issues and keeping a low regional and international profile in the hope of riding out their own crisis. In case of an all out war, Bashar could wax anti-Zionist, even anti-Semitic, to his heart's content, no one will pay attention to him, and soon everybody will forget about Hariri, and he might be given his desired deal one day. Meanwhile, Lebanon could also fall to mayhem, and Syria will be back squarely to where it was in the 80s, with the US and France rediscovering the fine art of lion-ass likcking, so that the Lion, in his new incranation, should wade in the mess on their behalf, just like the good old days.
3) But, Bashar & Co. are more likely to do the usual dumb thing rather than the rare smart thing, especially should Israeli leaders continue to show restraint in the face of provocations by Palestinian radicals, and should they show the same retraint vis-à-vis provocations from Syria-supported Palestinian radicals, and Hezbollah, for a long enough period to allow for the formation of the moderate alliance noted above. Such restraint will facilitate the further isolation of Bashar & Co., and their radical front at more rapid pace. Moreover, and sooner rather than later, occasional strikes by Israel against Syrian and Lebanese targets could probably take place without receiving strong international condemnation, just like the good old days. In fact, the US might even get an opportunity to chip in mounting some strikes of its own.
4) But, should Israel fail to show the necessary restraint, which is the more likely and perhaps even logical alternative at this stage with the elections and all that, then, the radicals will more likely succeed in dragging us into a regional quagmire similar to the early 80s, if not worse.
For the next few weeks, I’d say scenario one might unfold, but then Palestinian radicals are more likely to make a move, and everything after that depends on how Israel in particular behaves. Israelis will have every reason to want to retaliate against actions by militant groups, but should they go too far in this, they will be playing straight into the hands of Palestinian radicals (and, behind them, the Syrian and Iranian regimes), as they will embark on another period of protracted violence with the Palestinians.
But the real victor in all this will be Iran. For unless the US and the EU are willing to mount a full-scale military invasion to topple the Iranian regime, Iran will become a nuclear power within a year, if not less, and the world has to learn how to live with that and how to negotiate with a nuclear Iran. If agreement with Iran is reached now, and before Iran becomes a nuclear power, there is a possibility that peace in the territories and Lebanon will be preserved (as Iran could be convinced to decrease its level of support for the radcial elements there, and the Syrian regime could be left to dry, having outlived its usefulness for the Iranian pragmatists, no matter how conservative they happen to be in their socio-cultural views.
The plot has thickened to such suffocating levels that muddling through is simply not a viable option on the long run, as it will only help make the eventual explosion/implosion even bigger. Yet, muddling through is the exact course that everybody is going to advocate on grounds of real politick. Indeed, and on the ground of real politick, we shall start killing each other soon, and we shall continue to do so for a long time to come.
Our region is going to hell, again. Some people will blame Bush and Zionism for that. I blame our lingering stupidity. That is what makes me a heretic, I guess, not to mention a traitor.