The Hamas electoral victory is primarily a result of the failures of the ruling Fatah party. Given the opportunity of self-rule in 1993, Fatah, under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, established a corrupt, inefficient, lawless and authoritarian political system that eventually degenerated into chaos and disorder. The main failure of the Palestinian Authority was in the area most critical to state-building - monopoly over the use of force.
In contrast, the Hamas leadership acquired popularity by providing welfare and education services to the people, and by establishing a reputation for honesty. Moreover, the armed wing of Hamas has been at the forefront of the extremely popular terrorist campaign against Israel.
However, it is unlikely that Hamas will succeed in transcending Arafat's political legacy and in imposing a consolidation of the militias under a united Palestinian command. The Fatah-linked militias have no intention of disarming or accepting the new authority. We have already witnessed the first violent reactions. Yet, while the struggle over control of the organs of force may well bring about sporadic bloody confrontations, it will probably not turn into civil war.
The Palestinians have so far shied away from internal war, favoring the emergence of a fractured and decentralized polity. Moreover, Hamas is currently exhibiting reluctance to serve as the only ruling party, reinforced by its marked military inferiority versus the Fatah armed groups.
A FULL Hamas takeover of the PA is improbable as long as Hamas lacks the military muscle needed to successfully take on the Fatah militias. Rather, the most likely outcome of the elections is a tenuous power-sharing arrangement between Hamas and Fatah.
The Fatah-oriented militias will enter into a coalition with President Mahmoud Abbas and the security services that will be under his control, balancing Hamas, which will rely on its own armed wing and control several foci of civilian power.
Hamas may well be able to transform its militia into a government-sponsored security force in order to facilitate access to weapons and funds and eventually its expansion. A stronger militia may bring about a greater assertiveness on the part of Hamas, particularly in Gaza, where the Islamists are stronger than Fatah in terms of popular appeal, as well as military reach.
The Fatah-Hamas political cohabitation is an arrangement that will spare the Palestinians some immediate dilemmas. Fatah representatives will be sent to deal with the West and with Israel, allowing Hamas to remain ideologically pure in its advocacy for the destruction of Israel. Most important, this arrangement may be sufficient to provide the donor states an excuse to continue to transfer funds to the aid-dependent PA.
YET FATAH-HAMAS cohabitation will preserve the conditions for chaos and disorder in the PA - the existence of myriad armed gangs with loose central control. This portends a political climate inhospitable to regular economic activity and growth. Moreover, Hamas is an unlikely candidate for reforming Palestinian society.
After all, it represents a fundamentalist position that regards modernity and Western values as dangerous decadence and an affront to its version of Islam. It is unlikely to serve as a modernizing agent. If Hamas does take full control, initially in Gaza, it will establish a polity in the image of the Taliban regime, which is inimical to a Palestinian journey into modernity. A Hamastan dooms the Palestinians to backwardness, poverty, and easy recruitment of fanatic terrorists.
For Israel, the enhanced role of Hamas in the PA primarily means the continuation of the conflict. The growing influence of the Islamists will inevitably harden Palestinian positions versus Israel, making an agreement more difficult to reach.
Ideologically, Hamas opposes the recognition of Israel. It may accept a truce, but competition among the Palestinian armed factions will assure the continuation of terrorist attacks.
THE GROWING influence of Hamas in the Palestinian education system is particularly destructive. Hamas will do its best to educate additional generations of Palestinians to regard the Jews as usurpers who stole their land and attribute to them characteristics taken from the standard crude anti-Semitic motifs. The shahid will continue to serve as the role model for Palestinian children. These messages already form part of the consensus in Palestinian society.
Israel has hitherto been successful in containing Palestinian terrorism and the new situation may make things even easier. The entrenchment of Hamas in Palestinian society will clarify to Israelis that they are facing implacable enemies rather than partners for peace, solidifying the Israeli determination to weather the challenges of terror. Israel's use of force against terrorism may get a better hearing abroad.
The Hamas ascendancy in Palestinian politics also further calls into question the wisdom of the two-state paradigm - a bad idea that is gradually losing its appeal. The exercise of Palestinian self-determination has put the Palestinians on a path to self-destruction by empowering Hamas, and also endangering their neighbors. It is empathy for the Palestinians that should ring the warning bells against a Palestinian state and encourage a serious search for alternative ways to manage the situation.
The writer is professor of political studies at Bar-Ilan University and the director of the Begin-Sadat (BESA) Center for Strategic Studies.