For years, the U.S. and Israel operated under the (false) assumption that Yasser Arafat and his Fatah movement were reliable partners in the peace process. We ignored reports of rampant corruption, the ruthless elimination of political rivals, and Arafat's long history of saying the "right" things to western diplomats and media types, while vowing to destroy Israel in speeches to domestic audience.
After Arafat's death, we stuck with Fatah and its new leader, Mahmoud Abbas. There appeared to no real alternative--only the radical Palestinian group Hamas, who made no secret about its desire to eliminate Israel. The post-Arafat era supposedly provided a new opportunity for peace. Abbas was touted as something of a reformer, despite that fact that many of Arafat's cronies and crooks were still in place. Israel eventually agreed to vacate the Gaza Strip, with the support and blessing of the United States and our European allies. The peace process was supposedly moving forward, setting the stage for an eventual Palestinian state.
In backing Fatah, we opted for the lesser of two evils. Now, that strategy has backfired, with the triumph of Hamas in yesterday's Parlimentary elections. At last count, the terrorist group had a solid majority in the 132-seat Palestinian Parliment, leaving Fatah with only 43 seats. Abbas has asked Hamas to form the next Parliment; at this point it's unclear whether Fatah will join the new government, or serve in the opposition. Hamas has stated that it does not favor negotiations with Israel and refuses to disarm, rendering the peace process virtually dead.
Hamas's triumph has provoked a lot of back-pedaling and head-scratching in Washington, Tel Aviv, and elsewhere. Pundits believed that the terrorist group would make gains in the election, but few predicted the landslide that transpired. Some "experts" are now expressing hope that Hamas will moderate its views, now that it holds the reigns of power. he same group that has murdered hundreds of Israelis over the past decade? Fat chance.
History will record that the U.S. (and Israel) actually had another option. We could have--and should have--encouraged a legitimate democratic movement within the Palestinian ranks, rather than hitching our cart to Arafat's corrupt horse. Instead, we chose to believe that the master terrorist was the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people, despite ample evidence that he was illegitimate, both as a Palestinian and a leader. Meanwhile, Hamas kept growing and attracted support from Palestinians who gave up on Fatah--and its leaders--years ago. Arafat stole billions from the Palestinian treasury, deposited his wife in a five-star Paris hotel and cut his cronies in on the action. The U.S. (particularly the Clinton Administration) never blinked, and encouraged Israeli governments to keep dealing with Arafat and Fatah.
Now, we're faced with a genuine terrorist state on Israel's doorstep and few viable options for dealing with the problem. At this juncture, we can only hope that Hamas miscalculates and Israel settles the problem, once and for all.