OPPONENTS OF U.S. policy in the Middle East have described Hamas's victory in last week's Palestinian elections as a disaster that proves that President Bush was wrong to insist on elections in the West Bank and Gaza. The result, they say, has been the destruction of the peace process and the empowerment of a movement inimical to Israel and the United States; the lesson is that Mr. Bush should stop pressing for democratic change elsewhere in the region. While the consequences of the Palestinian vote remain highly uncertain, this rush to condemnation is nonsensical. It ignores the collapse of authority in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip before the elections, and it ignores the opportunity democracy created to remedy it.
By the time the Palestinian vote was held, it had become painfully clear that President Mahmoud Abbas would not and could not establish a viable government or rein in the armed thugs even of his own Fatah movement. The corrupt cadres that Yasser Arafat installed in Palestinian ministries had resisted reform or displacement, while the Palestinian payroll had grown so heavy with gunmen that European nations had suspended aid. Militants were attacking police stations and border posts in Gaza, kidnapping foreigners and firing rockets at Israel with impunity. For its part, the Israeli government barely concealed its view that peace talks with Mr. Abbas were useless and that its only option was to continue unilateral steps toward establishing a de facto border in the West Bank.
Some critics say that Mr. Bush should have forced Mr. Abbas to call off the elections or exclude Hamas from the ballot. Had he done so, the result almost certainly would have been a resumption of the Islamic movement's armed campaign against Israel, along with the perpetuation of a corrupt and crumbling regime. By insisting that the elections go forward, Mr. Bush and Mr. Abbas empowered the Palestinians to carry out the clean sweep of Mr. Arafat's cronies that had previously proved impossible. They also ensured that Hamas would recommit itself to a cease-fire that has led to a dramatic reduction in bloodshed and returned normality to Israeli cities. The chances that the Palestinian Authority will be able to restore some order in Gaza have risen.
While Hamas is unlikely to recognize Israel or formally renounce violence, it is no more likely to turn the Palestinian territories into an Islamic state. Most probably it will seek to implement its moderate campaign platform, which promised an uncorrupted and effective government while working out a modus vivendi with Israel. It should have to try this without direct Western aid or diplomatic recognition. But more extreme measures by Israel, Egypt or others to prevent the formation of a Hamas cabinet, or strangle the Palestinian territories with a cutoff of tax revenue or essential services, would likely only strengthen the Islamists or trigger a resumption of terrorism.
The Hamas victory is a poor guide to elections that might be held elsewhere in the Middle East. Despite the disarray of secular parties, the Islamists won only 44 percent of the popular vote. If there is a lesson to be drawn from Hamas's victory, it is that it is unwise to suppose that corrupt and autocratic regimes can somehow be induced to renew themselves enough to win free elections. Rather than banking on such governments, the United States should be insisting that they allow the growth of independent political movements, including secular alternatives.
Democratization in the Middle East will inevitably mean that Islamists and others with anti-Western agendas will have the chance to compete for power -- and occasionally to govern. If so they will be forced to choose, as Hamas now will, between ideology and pragmatic success, and suffer democracy's consequences if they fail. To oppose that development is to invest in an untenable status quo and to raise the chances that the Islamists -- who are a force the Middle East will live with for decades to come -- will assume power and rule not by democracy but by violence.