On January 26, 2006, Hamas celebrated its election victory. Ismail Haniyeh, who would assume the premiership, rededicated his organization to violence. "Our fighting is only with the Zionist enemy," he explained. "We will continue our dialogue with all brotherly factions in the Palestinian territories."
US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice lauded the election process, but condemned its victors. "You cannot have one foot in politics and the other in terror," she explained. "Our position on Hamas has therefore not changed."
Nor did Hamas change. To mark the six-month anniversary of its election the group staged a cross border attack on Israel, killing two soldiers and kidnapping 19-year-old IDF Cpl. Gilad Shalit. It continues to endorse missile strikes on Israeli civilians. And despite Haniyeh's calls for dialogue with Fateh, Hamas stewardship has led to daily clashes with rival Palestinian factions.
Blame for the violence lies not only in Gaza and Ramallah but also in Riyadh and Tehran. Hamas is not autonomous. Saudi donors helped launch the group in 1987 and provided a steady flow of cash until at least 2004. In October 2002, the World Association of Muslim Youth made Khalid Meshaal, the Hamas Political Bureau chief and an unapologetic advocate of terrorism, a guest-of-honor at its annual convention in Riyadh. After Saudi authorities, worried about blowback, cracked down on funding Sunni extremists, Iranian authorities picked up the slack. Canadian intelligence estimates that Tehran provides Hamas up to $18 million per year and welcomes Hamas fighters into its Revolutionary Guards training camps.
So where does Hamas stand a year into its tenure? As a governing force, it has failed. While Hamas leaders say they do not have money to pay civil servants, they find sufficient cash to conduct military operations. Where Hamas has succeeded, though, is in convincing some governments that it now deserves legitimacy. First, there was Turkey which under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is more Middle Eastern than European. Less than a month after Hamas' election win, Erdogan invited Meshaal to Ankara. A European Union travel ban collapsed soon after when the Swedish government offered Hamas minister Atef Adwan a visa. It was not long before European officials and many non-governmental organizations insisted that the western world had an obligation to fund Palestinian relief even though, with money fungible, such assistance mitigated pressure upon Hamas and enabled it to spend more on weapons.
European equivalence signals Hamas' sponsors that their strategy works. Europe's rhetoric may be strong, but its resolve is weak. An Arab boycott of Israel can last more than half a century, but the West's boycott of terrorist groups cannot last a month. Saudi princes and Iranian revolutionary foundation managers understand they should ignore Brussels and perhaps even Washington and continue to launch, fund, and sustain groups that embrace terrorism and eschew democracy.
Washington, however, has given Hamas and its radical sponsors perhaps their greatest victory. Not only did the Bush administration fail to insist that forfeiture of armed political party militias should be among the ground rules for legitimate democratic participation, thus allowing a Trojan horse into the election, but once the scale of Hamas' victory became known the White House rewarded Middle Eastern terrorist groups and their sponsors with an effective abandonment of the Bush democracy agenda.
Whereas Rice once spoke about the need for democracy and reform at the American University of Cairo, in her recent trips to Egypt she has appeared beside Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak and said hardly a word about reform. Neither the State Department nor the US ambassador in Cairo have spoken about the arson attack on the Ghad party headquarters, the kangaroo court conviction of its leader Ayman Nour, Mubarak's postponement of municipal elections or the videos of Egyptian police torturing dissidents that surfaced in November 2006 after thieves stole several police officers' cell phones at a wedding reception. The State Department has quietly squirreled away and diverted funding to support Iranian democracy and no longer, in practice, supports reform in Saudi Arabia. Fathi al-Jahmi remains imprisoned in Libya, where five Bulgarian nurses also face a firing squad.
Arab states and Iran have used Hamas to revert to a comfortable state of affairs in which they pay rhetorical heed to Palestinian political demands but, in practice, are indifferent. They fund terrorism that prolongs conflict and causes the Palestinians to further spiral into a morass. Their investment in Hamas has paid huge dividends. It will not end the Jewish state but, for the region's kings, hereditary presidents and ayatollahs, it sidetracks the far more worrisome agenda of democratization, reform, and accountability.
Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is editor of the Middle East Quarterly.