In a speech during President Biden’s visit to Israel last week, he urged the nation’s military to do all it can to minimize civilian casualties in its war with Hamas. “The vast majority of Palestinians are not Hamas,” he said. “Hamas does not represent the Palestinian people.”
How did Hamas come to power in Gaza in the first place? That history is worth revisiting now, two and a half weeks into the war, as it tests whether Biden’s point is true.
It was in January 2006 that the Palestinian territories held what turned out to be their last parliamentary elections. Hamas won a bare plurality of votes (44 percent to the more moderate Fatah party’s 41 percent) but, given the electoral system, a strong majority of seats (74 to 45). Neither party was keen on sharing power. Fighting broke out between the two. When a unity government was finally formed in June 2007, Hamas broke the deal, started murdering Fatah members, and, in the end, took total control of the Gaza Strip. Those who weren’t killed fled to the West Bank, and the territories have remained split ever since.
In other words, Hamas’ absolute rule of Gaza is not what the Palestinians voted for back in 2006. In fact, since the median age of Gazans is 18, half of Hamas’ subjects weren’t even born when the election took place. Since they have known no alternative, have absorbed little information but Hamas propaganda, and have witnessed periodic outbursts of violent conflict with Israel throughout their lives, it is impossible to know what they really think about their rulers.
But we need to ask another question: Why did the 2006 elections take place? The explanation lies in the political ideals—or, more correctly, the naïveté—of President George W. Bush. (Much of this comes from the reporting for my 2008 book, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power.)
Bush entered his second term, in January 2005, convinced that his mission was to spread democracy around the world. He assumed that democracy was the natural state of humanity: Once a dictator was toppled and the people could vote for leaders in elections, freedom and liberty would bloom forth. For a moment, it looked like he might be right: The world was witnessing the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the first parliamentary elections in post-Saddam Iraq. More pertinent, the Palestinian National Authority held its first election, and Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah party—which had recognized Israel’s right to exist and supported negotiations for a two-state solution—won handily.
Around this time, Israel was withdrawing from the Gaza Strip—not just pulling out troops, but evicting some 8,000 Jewish settlers (most of whom were paid to resettle in the West Bank). Suddenly there was a vacuum of local authority. Bush thought democracy would fill a vacuum, so he urged the Palestinian Authority to hold parliamentary elections.
One problem, though: Radical parties—notably Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which had boycotted the 2005 presidential election—decided to compete in the 2006 parliamentary contests.
Six weeks before these elections, Dennis Ross was on one of his frequent trips to the Middle East. As the Middle East envoy for Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush, Ross had more experience negotiating with Israelis and Palestinians than any American. He was no longer in the U.S. government, but he knew all the relevant players.
Ross was leery about holding elections. He thought that if there were elections, militias such as Hamas should be banned from participating; they should have to choose between joining the system and waging violence against it—they shouldn’t be allowed to have it both ways.
Members of Fatah, fearful that Hamas might win, approached Ross and asked if he could quietly urge the Israelis to block the election. An odd alignment was taking shape. “What’s wrong with this picture?” Ross asked himself. Fatah and Israel were against holding the elections; Hamas and President Bush were in favor.
Ross communicated all this to Robert Zoellick, a former colleague from Bush Sr.’s days who was now deputy secretary of state. Like Ross, Zoellick worried the election could be disastrous. He urged his boss, Bush Jr.’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, to urge Israelis to do some things to improve Fatah’s prospects—for instance, to ease up on border crossings in the Palestinian territories and let Abbas take credit for the gesture.
Rice refused, saying that the U.S. shouldn’t put its thumb on the scales. A former hardheaded adherent of realpolitik, Rice had recently adopted Bush’s view of the world: She thought, or at least acted as if, elections were a magic potion for curing political ills and that the U.S., having delivered or blessed them, should sit back and let the historical forces flow naturally.
To her (and most American observers’) surprise, Hamas won. It proved to be only the first yank in the unraveling of the Bush-Rice dogma. Civil war broke out between Hamas and Fatah, leading eventually to Fatah’s expulsion from Gaza, Hamas’ total dictatorship there, and a resumption of rocket fire from the enclave into Israel—prompting the Israeli blockade on Gaza’s northern border (which Egypt, whose leaders hated and feared Hamas as well, reinforced with a blockade on the southern border). At the same time, Hezbollah rained missiles down on Israel from southern Lebanon, prompting a war—which could reignite soon.
Bush had been influenced in his optimism about democracy by Natan Sharansky, a charismatic human-rights activist and former Soviet dissident who spent nine years as a political prisoner in the gulag. He was released in 1986, during the heyday of Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms, and emigrated to Israel, where he became a parliamentarian and a hero to the neoconservative movement in the U.S.
In a speech at the American Enterprise Institute’s World Forum in June 2002, Sharansky said that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was “not a tribal war between Jews and Arabs in the Middle East,” but rather a key battle in “the first world war of the 21st century, waged between the world of terror and the world of democracy.” The West’s key task, he said, was “to expand the world our enemies try to destroy”—i.e., “to export democracy.”
Among the avid listeners to the speech was Vice President Dick Cheney. He brought Sharansky into the White House and introduced him to Bush, who came gradually to adopt his views.
Leaving aside the merits of Sharansky’s perspective (at the very least, it oversimplified matters), Bush ignored one of his main points. Elections, as Sharansky wrote in his 2004 book The Case for Democracy, “are not a true test of a democracy.” They “are never the beginning of the democratic process. Only when the basic institutions that protect a free society are firmly in place—such as a free press, the rule of law, independent courts, political parties—can free elections be held.” Until then, “elections are just as likely to weaken efforts to build democracy as they are to strengthen them.”
Sharansky made this point to Bush in person in May 2005 after resigning from the Israeli government in protest of its withdrawal from Gaza. Sharansky wrote an open letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon denouncing the disengagement as a “tragic mistake” and arguing that “any concessions in the peace process must be linked to democratic reforms within Palestinian society.”
Sharon disagreed (he just wanted to be done with Gaza), and so did Bush, who’d been so persuaded by the first part of Sharansky’s democratic sermon that he ignored this crucial second part.
Relations with Hamas were bound to break down in any case. Israel’s occupation of Gaza, which had begun in 1967, could not have been sustained indefinitely. Hamas’ hostility to Israel was a key article of its ideology, its reason for being. There was no space to negotiate any softening.
But the election that put Hamas in power was not inevitable; it was premature. Israel and the leaders of the neighboring Sunni Arab nations, who inveighed lavish rhetorical support for the Palestinians but did very little to back it up, could have done more to help build the elements of a civil society and negotiate a peace. But ultimately, they didn’t want to. Elections only tightened the bonds of conflict and lent it a veneer of legitimacy. Hamas’ murderous assault on Oct. 7, the subsequent escalation of violence, and the possibility of a widening war—these are the latest and most bitter fruits of the elections’ legacy.