August 15, 2014 | The Wall Street Journal

A Ballot-Box Test for the Palestinians

It has become de rigueur among Israelis, and many Americans, to belittle the idea of Palestinian democracy. The 2006 legislative elections—strongly backed by President George W. Bush and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas —produced a narrow victory by Hamas, an Islamist terrorist organization, setting off a long slide for the more secular Fatah. Fatah is the muscle behind the Palestinian Authority, the government on the West Bank.

In the vote's aftermath, Fatah's security apparatus cracked in Gaza and might have fallen in the West Bank if it hadn't been for Israeli support. The conflict between Israel and Hamas in Gaza over the past month—the third major outbreak of violence since Hamas took control in 2007—springs in part, some would argue, from this electoral mistake. Muslim fundamentalists do too well at the polls; among Palestinians, democracy allowed terrorists to triumph.

The Obama administration, like Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, wants to strengthen Fatah in its duel with Hamas. Neither the Americans nor the Israelis nor the divided Palestinian leadership is keen on another round of legislative or presidential elections. Would Hamas's jihadism cost it more votes than its anti-Zionist steadfastness has gained? Would Fatah's relative moderation offset its rampant corruption and its own police-state oppression?

The determination of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to push for more Israeli concessions in the peace process reflects a common belief that a generous agreement could inoculate Palestinians against religious militancy. This line of thinking says that Israeli compromises are vital to the triumph of secularists, who could conceivably accept the legitimacy of the Jewish state. Such reasoning recalls the logic of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the Turkish Republic: secularism first, democracy sometime later.

Atatürk was astute. A free vote in Turkey after World War I would have surely left Islam as the state religion and quite possibly a sultan in the Dolmabahçe Palace. Although democratic politics might have continued (the Ottoman empire had a parliament), the Turkish Republic would have been stillborn.

Yet force-feeding secularism didn't prevent, 90 years later, the democratic triumph of an Islamist prime minister, who today has aligned Ankara with Hamas. Atatürk, a charismatic war hero who openly embraced Western civilization, triumphed in an age of European supremacy. Palestinian secularists have no such luck. They must make headway against a much more religiously political culture.

Democracy encourages the secularization of society, and thus Muslim fundamentalists' historical hostility to it. But secular authoritarianism of the sort being quietly encouraged for the Palestinians has a bad track record in the Middle East for creating grass-roots secularism, the bottom-up culture behind liberal democracies. It's questionable whether Israeli concessions to Fatah would meaningfully change the hostile dynamic between Palestinian secularists and Islamists. Even the most generous deal imaginable from Israel would leave many Palestinian secularists bitterly disappointed. The Islamists, of course, aren't interested in a two-state solution.

It's not a coincidence that as the PLO began to govern land in Gaza and the West Bank, Hamas's strength grew. Being cheek-by-jowl with Israelis, who are now the ultimate guarantors of Fatah's survival, may have accentuated the Palestinian sense of otherness and Hamas's holy-warrior sentiments, but that certainly didn't create the appeal of Muslim fundamentalism.

Islamic militancy mushroomed in the past half-century for many reasons, but none more important than the growing perception that established political institutions were unjust, that elites were too Westernized, and that the social contract among Muslims, with its emphasis on equality before the holy law, had been shredded. The Fatah-Hamas duel—the struggle between an authoritarian status quo and religious insurgents—can be seen nearly everywhere among Arabs.

If another Palestinian election were held—legislative elections were due in 2010 but have been put off indefinitely—the world would have a far better idea of whether Palestinians, especially those in Gaza, support terrorism against Israelis. If Hamas won the legislative or presidential elections after three wars with Israel, and launched a fourth, then the Palestinian people would bear far greater responsibility for such hostility than they do now. If Fatah won, it would be on the spot to prove its commitment to end the struggle against Israelis.

A freely elected Palestinian Parliament can bless a permanent cessation of hostilities between Palestinians and Israelis. Fatah's ruling elite, constantly nervous about its own legitimacy, cannot.

Holding new Palestinian elections wouldn't be popular with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who has crushed democracy in Egypt and would be wary of another triumph by Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that he is aggressively suppressing. The Saudis, similarly averse to democracy and the Brotherhood, might object. So, too, might the Israelis. But the U.S. and European Union—vital sources of aid to the Palestinians—acting together have some sway and could ensure a tolerably fair election.

The hideous violence in the Middle East since the Great Arab Revolt started in Tunisia in 2010 has made many Americans wary and depressed about the Arab future. Westerners always want to see liberals quickly rise to power—even though that didn't happen during the West's own slow evolution toward democracy. It also won't happen in the Muslim world.

But elections can bring change, and the status quo in Gaza has become a bloody cul-de-sac. Hamas is becoming more viciously skilled and Fatah isn't becoming more virtuous. The Palestinian people may deserve this awful bifurcation. We don't know. Let them vote.

Mr. Gerecht is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies

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Palestinian Politics