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The landslide victory of the Islamist Hamas in the January 25 Palestinian elections marks the collapse of the Palestinian national movement. Before talking about what Hamas will do now, it is important to assess what went wrong for the long-dominant Fatah organization, which has led for almost 40 years.
Short-term analyses point to the incompetence and corruption of Fatah in running the Palestinian Authority as the reason for the movement's downfall. But that is only part of the story. The underlying factor is that Fatah proved it was both worthless and irrelevant.
The goal of a nationalist movement is to create a state for its people, to provide a framework for their security, economic development and cultural identity. But Fatah, and the PLO of which it was a part, never made gaining a Palestinian state its priority. On the contrary, the goal was one of total victory in which Israel would be wiped off the map. Anything short of that outcome, including achieving a smaller Palestinian state, was not only a distraction from that goal, it was outright treason.
In 2000, Fatah and the PLO had a chance to fulfill the dream of an independent Palestinian state, both at the Camp David conference and in President Bill Clinton's offer. While some wanted to make a deal, the leadership rejected the idea and instead chose to launch a five-year-long war of terrorism that gained nothing and worsened the material conditions of the Palestinians.
So if Fatah is incapable of achieving anything material, why should Palestinians support it?
Moreover, Fatah and the PA systematically extolled violence, carried out terrorism and demonized Israel. Fatah and the PA taught and reinforced every point in the Hamas program -except for Islamism itself.
And so, what the nationalists sowed, the Islamists reaped.
It will be very hard for Fatah or Palestinian nationalism to make a comeback for years. Aside from all its other problems the movement is now deprived of the power and money that attracted many of its adherents and helped provided the degree of unity and prestige Fatah did enjoy. What happened on January 25, therefore, is not just an election defeat but the opening of a new era.
WHAT DOES Hamas represent? Despite a desperate attempt to dredge up some reason to believe the group will become more moderate - by citing PR-oriented statements made in English and ignoring everything Hamas says to its own people in Arabic - this is not going to happen. Hamas's world view is virtually identical to that of Osama bin Laden and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Indeed, just before last week's Palestinian elections, Ahmadinejad told Hamas leaders in Syria that their struggle was only part of a bigger war to the death between the Islamic world and the West. Hamas's most important leader, Ismail Haniyeh, says its mission in government is to "complete the liberation of other parts of Palestine."
Every Palestinian knows he is talking about Israel's total destruction. Toward Jews, Hamas's rhetoric and views correspond closely to those of the Nazi party.
But why should Hamas change its historic policy which, its leaders think, has brought them such popular acceptance and success? They genuinely believe - like bin Laden and Ahmadinejad - that the balance of forces is of no importance because God will certainly bring them victory.
Hamas members have repeatedly said that it does not matter how long the struggle lasts, or how many people die and suffer. Only the goal matters.
Whenever Fatah had to decide between sacrificing its ideology or its people's well-being, the nationalists always chose to sacrifice the latter. If the relatively secular Fatah generally followed this pattern and rejected moderation, why should Hamas be any different?
TO ISRAELIS, the election results are dismaying, but not surprising. The great majority, across the political spectrum, had already concluded after a dozen years of "peace process" with Fatah that there was no Palestinian partner for peace. Hamas's triumph only reinforces this expectation. Israel is ready to accept a Palestinian state, but Palestinians are not ready to accept an Israeli state.
For the West, the Hamas victory poses a big challenge. Will it repeat the mistake of those who tried to appease Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the Stalinist USSR in the 1940s? Will it subsidize with aid an organization whose official organs routinely refer to Jews as "the sons of pigs and monkeys" and that has carried out numerous terrorist attacks? The first reaction of the "Quartet" that sponsored the road map peace plan was to demand that Hamas recognize Israel. When this does not happen, what will they do about it?
Hamas's victory opens a new era for the whole Middle East. Any diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is now unlikely for 20 years, and that may be too optimistic. Radical Islamists will be inspired to even greater efforts to overthrow Arab nationalist regimes and attack the West.
In the end, Hamas and its allies will not defeat the West or destroy Israel because they have misunderstood the world and underestimated their enemies. But what about their enemies in the Arab world?
The challenge posed by the Islamist defeat of the nationalists in Palestinian politics is not just to Israel or the West but to all Arab nationalist regimes, whose combination of radical incitement, denial of freedom and administrative incompetence parallel Fatah's ultimately suicidal policies.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.
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