(photo credit: AP)
Assessing who were the "winners" and "losers" is always a favorite sport following elections, and the Palestinian Legislative Council elections are no exception.
Ironically, both the Israelis and the Palestinians lost in these elections - and for the same reason. Hamas's strong showing - apparently about one-third of the vote - means that the extremists have now gained a strong, official foothold on the proverbial Palestinian street.
One of the enduring tragedies of the century-old Israeli-Arab conflict is that Arab extremists who would not allow any form of conciliation always seem to have had the last word.
Up until now one could muster support for the argument that average Palestinians just want to carry on with their lives as we do with ours. The belief was that they just want to go through life peacefully and send their kids back and forth to school safely, but that Palestinian society was always tragically "hijacked" by the extremists.
But now it seems the Palestinian street has willingly and through a democratic election handed the "plane," or at least a big chunk of it, to the extremists. That's bad for the Palestinians, because it will ensure that the conflict will rage on, and it is bad for us, because it will ensure that the conflict will rage on.
So who won? Well, in the short term, the Americans.
Despite signals from PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas that he was interested in postponing the elections when it seemed clear that Hamas would do very well, and that his continued tenure could be endangered, the Americans pressed for the elections to be held on time. They were pushing democracy in the Middle East.
And, likewise, when Israel indicated it was less than thrilled that Palestinians would be able to vote in Jerusalem for a party that calls for Israel's destruction and hinted it may ban voting in Jerusalem, the Americans nixed the idea. They were pushing democracy in the Middle East.
And, indeed, the American point of view won out on both counts - a good indication of the strength of American influence in the region.
The Americans got what they wanted: a democratic election in the Arab Middle East, a badly needed "check mark" in the win column on the Middle East democracy chart that must be hanging up somewhere in Washington.
The Americans wanted a democratic election in the Palestinian Authority which would be fair, free and on schedule and they got their election.
But it will likely turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory, one that underlines the immense challenge facing America's drive for democratization in the region. For what happens, as was the case in Germany in the 1930s, when the People go to the polls and elect the bad guys? Then what do you do? One of the reasons America pushed so hard for the elections was in the hope that it would lead to a snowball effect, that elections in the territories would positively influence moves toward democracy in neighboring Arab states.
And, indeed, it may. When the folks in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Syria see the elections in the PA, they might say, "Hey, if they can do it in Ramallah and Kalkilya, so can we." Which is the good news. The bad news, for which the Americans have not provided an answer, is what happens when the population - or a significant part of it - doesn't want the Jeffersonian democrats, but rather the radical Islamic extremists?