Abbas museum 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
Support moderates, oppose extremists: this has been Western mantra in the war against terrorism, including the branch known as the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is an obvious strategy, and it has ostensibly become simpler now that the two have become clearly divided, with Hamas in charge of Gaza and Fatah ruling in the West Bank.
It is a strategy, however, that events have shown to be badly in need of adjustment.
After all, thousands of weapons provided to "moderate" Fatah have now been captured by Hamas. Fatah's forces, on paper much stronger, better-equipped and certainly enjoying greater international backing, collapsed like a paper bag in Gaza, indicating that perhaps Western strategy had been flawed.
Evidently, there was something wrong with the "moderates" who the US, Europe and Israel tried to back, or at least in how we tried to back them. The Jerusalem Post's Khaled Abu Toameh offers an explanation: "US-backed efforts to undermine the Hamas-led government over the past 16 months have failed, largely because most Palestinians clearly do not regard Fatah as a better alternative to Hamas."
Following its 2006 election defeat, "Fatah failed to draw conclusions and get rid of all the icons of corruption among its top brass... Even if free and fair elections were held tomorrow... it is highly unlikely that Palestinians would vote for the same people they voted out in 2006."
Most damning, Abu Toameh notes, is that the same scenario is already repeating itself on the West Bank: "The Israeli and Fatah campaign against Hamas is likely to backfire. The majority of the Palestinians in the West Bank have yet to come out in public to pledge their allegiance to Fatah in its war against Hamas. It's true that many West Bankers are unhappy with what Hamas has done in the Gaza Strip. But there are still many Palestinians who are fed up with the scores of Fatah armed gangs that have long been running wild in the West Bank."
As Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and US President George W. Bush prepare to meet on Tuesday, the question is: How can we learn from past mistakes and begin to turn around a bad situation that seems to be headed for even worse?
The problem lies not so much in the principle of supporting "moderates" over extremists, but in how this idea has been applied. The West has a long habit of defining these concepts in relative terms, rather than setting standards and sticking to them. If anyone doubted the folly of this, we now see what happens when the West latches on to the party deemed a lesser evil, regardless of whether - both in principle and in practical terms - that party warrants support.
Israeli officials are already gearing up for "the opportunity to work with a leader [Mahmoud Abbas] we can really work with, both on security ... and financial issues."
The US has also indicated that the aid embargo will be lifted for the new government Abbas has declared on the West Bank.
None of this will work, however, if the Fatah leadership remains, in the eyes of most Palestinians, a gang of corrupt thugs. Though implementation has obviously been uneven, this is precisely what the Bush administration committed itself not to do after 9/11 - supporting "pro-Western" rulers regardless of their intrinsic democratic credentials and, in the name of "stability," producing the opposite of the desired result.
The current turn of events is a rare opportunity to do better. Fatah now claims it collapsed before the Hamas forces because it had been busy fighting Israel. Before pouring in assistance, the US and Israel must demand that Fatah end its absurd competition with Hamas over which faction is more anti-Israel and instead provide a real alternative to the Islamist movement.
This means giving Palestinians a true choice between building Palestine - including settling refugees, ending incitement and instituting the rule of law - and a fruitless war with Israel.
Perhaps Palestinians, given a choice between Hamas's perpetual war and leaders who demonstrate they are serious about ending the war with Israel in order to create a Palestinian state, will still choose the former.
Yet there is a chance that, given the opportunity, they are ready for peace. However slim that chance may be, we do know this: If the West continues to offer Palestinians nothing more than a choice between Hamas and a corrupt Hamas-lite, they are likely to continue to choose Hamas.