The Palestinian elections for a legislative assembly have taken place as predicted, more or less peacefully, and without preliminary rigging, as occurred in 1996 in the bad old days of Yasser Arafat. That much is positive.
Arafat was ostensibly a nationalist, though in practice he cut the nation out of everything, keeping power and money in his own hands, to be doled out only as he saw fit to cronies in Fatah, nominally a party but actually a mafia. Corruption followed naturally, with the corrupt forming militias to protect what they could gouge out. Palestinians have seen for themselves that his brand of nationalism leads only stagnation, injustice, and gangsterism, and as this vote shows, they have had enough of it. That too is positive.
Hamas appears to have won more seats than its rival Fatah. Hamas does not fit into any pattern of pluralist democracy. A movement of political Islam, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood like al Qaeda and other terrorists, it infuses nationalism with religious faith. The aim remains the ethnic cleansing or the death of all Israelis, and the incorporation of their land into the new state of Palestine. Suicide bombing is its special means to that end. Hamas leaders have already been quick to say that they will take up their place in the legislative assembly and keep their weapons. Taking that line, Islamists in other Arab countries have shot it out with nationalists, and this sort of strife could befall the Palestinians too.
Hamas appeals primarily because it is against Fatah corruption, and its distribution of funds received from international sponsors to purposes of education and welfare is of course genuinely popular. In the light of the election, Hamas leaders have to decide whether to give priority to the struggle against Israel, or to cementing the social measures that give them every advantage over Fatah.
Rightly President Bush has applied pressure by saying that there can be no question of dealing with Hamas until it gives up terror. For Israel, Ehud Olmert has made the same condition. In practice, there are already Hamas mayors and officials on the West Bank and in Gaza, and Israel has to treat with them over plenty of low-level issues. Common sense suggests that Hamas would enter the government along with Fatah, and try to steer the political process to its benefit, while shaking a fist at Israel for show. That appears to be what Abu Mazen hopes, and he is too weak to do much more than appease Hamas. The Arafat years have left Palestinian society so fractured and lawless that common sense is at a premium, however, and any idea of peace and cooperation may well be wishful thinking. In that case, this election will have added to the baffling Middle East phenomenon that something new has happened but nothing changes.