It’s less than a year since elections in the Palestinian territories handed a decisive victory to Hamas. But Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, whose Fatah movement was defeated, now wants to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections. Hamas is crying foul, and has said it will boycott any early election.

Anywhere else, this would be regarded as a crisis for democracy. But the supposed friends of democracy are on Abbas’s side: Tony Blair, currently visiting the region, endorsed the move, which has also won support in Washington.

The Hamas government has been crippled by financial sanctions applied by Israel and Western governments, and its relations with Fatah have degenerated into repeated violence in recent weeks, although a ceasefire between them was agreed on Sunday evening.

Hamas’s problem is its failure to recognise Israel – a step which, understandably enough, it expects should be the outcome of negotiations, rather than something to be given away at the start. But its decision to participate in last January’s election was an implicit commitment to the path of negotiations rather than violence.

Now, even as there is unprecedented recognition that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is fundamental to the future of the region, that major step forward is being undone.

The reaction to its victory has taught Hamas that Western support for democracy is selective, and that electoral participation brings it no benefits. If as a result it boycotts new elections, the Palestinian territory will return to the old model of an effective one-party state, with Fatah lacking any democratic legitimacy and Hamas lacking any incentive for restraint in its campaign against the occupation.

The policy of isolating Hamas has been tried and failed. Perhaps it’s time to try something different.

The Australian yesterday editorialised that “Mr Abbas must find a way to force the two major groups to accept that the ballot box, not bullets, decides who rules.” But the even harder task will be to secure that acceptance from the rest of the world.

Peter Fray

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