The world is about to rethink its views of the whole Arab-Israeli conflict, due to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's past policy shift, his evident departure from politics, and Palestinian developments. The critical variable here is not what has happened to Sharon but a Palestinian political situation which makes any progress toward peace impossible for years to come. Sharon's illness may be distracting attention from the Palestinian crisis, but it is ultimately much less important in shaping the region's future. The immediate question is whether the current Palestinian leadership will find some excuse to cancel the January 25 parliamentary elections, grasping at such straws as Israel's handling of voting in Jerusalem or Sharon's medical problems. But even this issue is secondary. Whether or not there is any voting, the Palestinian movement is rushing headlong into the past. Both Hamas and the new Fatah leaders, headed by Marwan Barghouti, are, under slightly different guises, returning to the strategies of the young Yasser Arafat. The fact that these failed for four decades does not seem to be much of a factor in their calculations. For Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, the deterioration has gone so far that the only ones who still think he counts for anything are the Western media. His four pillars of support - Muhammad Dahlan (security), Abu Abbas (bureaucracy), Tayib Abd al-Rahim (administration), and Salam Fayyad (economy) - have all deserted him. He is powerless, passive and clueless. ABBAS HAS good reason to worry about the election:
Both Hamas (under the charming slogan "change and reform") and the Fatah rebels, headed by Barghouti, will do as well as or better than Abbas's candidates.
Since Abbas's list includes many of the rebels, almost half of those elected by voters for Abbas could be totally opposed to him.
Smaller radical lists, including both extremist nationalists and independent Islamist groups, will also get a considerable number of seats.
The Palestinian election commission resigned because of government interference in the campaign, thus making it likely that the actual balloting will be chaotic and marked by violence.
There are daily examples of kidnappings of Palestinians and visiting Western supporters for money; shootings - Fatah activists killed a Hamas man hanging up campaign posters in Gaza - takeovers of government buildings by armed men, and many other such events.
None of this is going away for a long time. Indeed, the only way to reestablish peace would be by force.
There is no group or leader on the horizon who could impose order; at any rate, doing so would require an even higher level of violence.
But by far the single most remarkable event was a January 4 armed attack by Fatah on the Egyptian army. To prevent any control over the Egypt-Gaza Strip border, Fatah gunmen killed two Egyptian soldiers and wounded 30, forcing that country's troops to withdraw. They then knocked a hole in the border fence allowing Palestinians to pass through at will.
This action was also taken to protest the arrest of a Fatah commander who was kidnapping foreigners. Naturally, the man was quickly released by the hapless Palestinian authorities.
The kind of thing Fatah gunmen did to the Egyptians is generally called an act of war. Of course, in the context of Arab politics, Egypt will do nothing for now except publicly praise Abbas's supposed good handling of the crisis. This event shows how ridiculous it is to expect Egypt to do anything to safeguard this border or prevent terrorists and arms from crossing it.
At the same time, though, such incidents are another step in the continuing alienation of the Arab world from the Palestinians. The Egyptians may say nice things about the Palestinian cause, but they are boiling mad and their anger will manifest itself in the future. No Arab state will give the Palestinians serious economic support. And as Hamas comes to parity - and perhaps beyond - this alienation will deepen.
THE WEST is far more likely to misunderstand these developments than is the Arab world. There are three main dangers in the inevitable reassessment:
insistence, flying in the face of reality, that Abbas is a viable leader, a moderate who should be helped by more concessions;
wishful thinking that Barghouti is the new "man of peace" who will lead the Palestinians toward compromise even though his whole strategy revolves around terrorism. It should also be noted that Barghouti is more coordinator than leader. For example, his main ally in the Gaza Strip, Dahlan, is also one of his most bitter rivals.
A nonsensical belief that Hamas can be moderated, a concept that makes the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s look reasonable by comparison.
It is getting time to face the facts. Sharon moved Israel even further toward moderation and a readiness for compromise while the Palestinians have gone in the opposite direction, increasing hatred of Israel, intransigence, terrorism and the goal of total victory.
The two sides are going to continue moving further apart in future.
The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs.