There are many measures of democracy: whether free elections are reliably held, whether the rule of law protects the people from their government, and whether there is, in practice, full freedom of assembly and expression. Palestinian democracy has a way to go according to all these measures, but on Wednesday it leapt over what is perhaps the greatest democratic hurdle of all: whether the people have the power to remove their government from office.
There is, of course, the wrinkle that, in this case, the victorious Hamas is also heavily armed. It is hard to consider an election free when the voters go to the polls at gunpoint. At the same time, however, there is no reason to believe that Palestinians, who turned out to the polls in record numbers, voted for Hamas against their will.
On the contrary, the popular Palestinian desire to depose their "government" was palpable. Palestinians wanted change and they got it.
But change to what?
Once Hamas, which has evidently won an absolute majority of the Palestinian legislature, takes the reins of government, a terrorist organization becomes a terrorist regime. This must be the presumption of Israel and the world, until proven otherwise.
Two theories suggest that, once in power, Hamas will change. First, the same electorate that chose Hamas is thought to be tired of terrorism, or more specifically, tired of the costs that terrorism has imposed on their own lives. Second, it is widely argued that the very assumption of power has a moderating influence, since Hamas must now court the international community and deliver for the people - or be treated in a few years to its own electoral medicine.
These theories should not be assumed to be true, especially since they are colored by wishful thinking. The fact that Hamas, which is clearly identified with "armed struggle," soundly trounced Fatah, which has claimed to oppose terrorism, does not allow the dismissal of the possibility that the Palestinian people have chosen war over peace, militancy over compromise.
Nor can Hamas's electoral instincts, even if a majority does oppose terrorism, be assumed to prevent the organization from going against the popular will. Nazism and Communism both took advantage of democratic processes only to eliminate them when they got the chance; there is no reason to trust Islamic fundamentalists not to do so as well.
So where does this leave Israel and the West?
We should recognize the Palestinian people's democratic accomplishment, without accepting their desperate choice of saviors. Indeed, we should hold the new Palestinian government to the standard the old one should have been held to: no fight against terrorism, no money. Since a terrorist organization - the very group the PA was required to disarm -has become the new regime, this should mean an immediate cutoff of all financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
The temptation will be to give the new regime a trial period and only then to issue an ultimatum. That would be a terrible mistake.
We don't need a crystal ball to predict that Hamas will attempt the same game Fatah has played to date: blame all Palestinian terrorism on someone else. The PA was not even held responsible for the terrorism of Fatah's own "military" wing.
Some might sensibly dismiss the idea of moderating Hamas entirely. Those who do believe in such behavior modification should realize that their only hope is to apply the full shock treatment at the moment when it has the greatest possibility of success: right now.
Hamas has stated that it wants a unity government, and that it will continue to pay the salaries of all the Palestinian security forces. Hamas terrorists, indeed, will presumably become the PA's security apparatus. Neither Israel, through tax remittances, nor the international community has any business funding such a force, which remains sworn to Israel's destruction.
In the entirely unlikely event that the rosiest of scenarios plays out and Hamas begins to prevent rather than engage in terrorism, it is obvious that international assistance could be restored. But if Hamas, like its predecessor, is able to keep the terror card in play while its aid flows, then the chances of a Hamas transformation, however small, would be reduced to nil.