In recent local Palestinian elections some 600,000 Palestinians cast their votes for lists associated with the Islamic terrorist group Hamas (the Palestinian branch of the al Qaeda-linked Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood) while only 250,000 voted for people associated with Fatah. While the magnitude of the Hamas vote suggests that a serious anti-democratic, anti-Western and anti-Semitic pathology continues to plague Palestinian society, the vote also confirms the growing belief in diplomatic circles that Hamas will win the forthcoming Palestinian parliamentary elections scheduled for this fall.

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That belief has resulted in some incredibly shortsighted reactions from both the Bush administration and the European Union. The White House has acceded to Hamas running candidates in Palestinian elections even though the radical Islamic organization has refused to disarm or disavow its ideological goal of replacing Israel with an Islamic State. The European Union, for its part, has already informed the Bush administration that it intends to conduct talks with the terrorist organization regardless of whether Hamas moves toward the abandonment of violence or the recognition of Israel. Both actions constitute an act of appeasement of an organization that has dedicated itself to committing acts of terror against civilians and sees diplomatic overtures by Western powers as evidence of Western weakness. That approach failed Jimmy Carter during the Iranian hostage-taking crisis a generation ago and it will fail George W. Bush and the EU for the same reason.

Nowhere is it written that Western nations must accept the election of an unrepentant terrorist organization. Nowhere is it written that by winning an election at gunpoint – whether in Lebanon or the Palestinian territories – a terrorist organization is absolved of its democratic responsibilities. Nor should any promise of reform by such a government carry any currency. Arafat signed the 1993 Oslo Accords and later received the Nobel Peace Prize without any intention whatsoever of honoring his promise of non-violent change. We should have learned by now that the oral or written declarations of dictators and tyrants are meaningless without physical proof of their intentions both by deed and behavior. The disastrous UN Oil-for-Food program, the 1994 Agreed Framework designed to assist North Korea with humanitarian aid in return for a promise to desist from its development of nuclear weapons, and the international agreements signed by Iran’s Islamic government to forego the development of nuclear weapons were undertakings signed by dictators to achieve their goals by other means.

If an elected authority cannot respect the rights of its own people, it cannot be expected to respect its international commitments. If Hamas remains committed to the destruction of Israel, refuses to disarm its militias, and continues to send forth suicide bombers to murder the innocent in the name of Allah, then recognition of the legitimacy of its government would lend credence both to its ideology and its tactics. To paraphrase Napoleon’s foreign minister, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand – recognition of such a regime would be worse than a crime; it would be a mistake.

That is because democracy has always been more than just voting. Like liberty and freedom, democracy cannot be laid down like Astroturf. It is about building democratic institutions. It cannot be exported or donated, nor does it come in a kit to be assembled overnight. Democracy depends not only on a set of universally accepted rules of behavior, but on intangible and complex bonds of responsibility and trust. And while there’s been a great deal of debate in recent years about “nation building,” the truth is that democracies are not exactly things that you “build.” They require a set of beliefs far different from those required for survival under dictators – which (unfortunately) accounts for why two of every three Palestinians favor Hamas.

Shrouding a Hamas-dominated government with the mantle of international legitimacy and entering into a dialogue with it will only serve to vindicate its tactics and reward terrorism. You can wrap a lion in sheep’s clothing, but that does not alter the nature of the beast, and an evangelical belief in the healing power of democracy (that ideologically motivated Islamic terrorists can be weaned from violence by the need to satisfy their constituencies) cannot change that.

Should Hamas succeed in assuming control over the Palestinian Authority and form its own government, it must be met with international resistance, isolation and censure until it accepts the normal standards of international behavior. To do otherwise will lay the foundations for a new terrorist state in the Middle East, undermine the security of Israel, and destroy the credibility of America – a country already painted by the Islamists as a weak, decadent “paper tiger”……and we all know where that road led.