The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections is being treated in the media as an awful blow to the hopes for peace, or even progress, in that eternally vexing region of the Middle East. What, now, will happen to the "peace process"? What hope remains for President Bush's vaunted "road map," which beckoned the competing forces toward compromise?
Certainly, Hamas' victory teaches us at least one important, and thoroughly discouraging, lesson. President Bush has warmly endorsed "democracy" as the solution for the multiple ills of the Islamic nations in the area. During the Cold War, the United States unashamedly backed all sorts of corrupt and thoroughly undemocratic regimes there, on the sound principle that, whatever their faults, they were clearly preferable to a Soviet takeover of the entire region.
But in the past 15 years, and especially since Sept. 11, it has become plain that these governments are not only obnoxious, but fatally unstable. Most of them, moreover, have been threatened with overthrow at the hands of fanatical Islamists hostile to the United States. Steps toward democracy, with concomitant economic and social reforms, seemed like the soundest, and perhaps the only, hope for progress.
What the Hamas victory teaches us is the unappetizing lesson that democratic elections, in nations without a democratic tradition, a substantial middle class, and a viable economy, may result in the triumph of forces even more offensive than the regimes they overthrow, and far more hostile to the United States and the values it represents.
That is bad news, but it at least serves the purpose of throwing into sharp relief the seriousness of the problem America faces in the Middle East, and the absolutely critical importance of victory in our war against Islamic terrorism. If we ultimately prevail in that war, democracy will inevitably be the path followed by the Middle Eastern nations, and gradually the bulk of the voters there will accept membership in modern society. If we fail, war and terrorism will be our lot for the foreseeable future.
But Hamas' victory does not represent any real setback in the subordinate struggle between Israel and the Palestinians, for the simple reason that there is not, and never has been, any serious hope of a settlement of that quarrel.
Every few years I find it necessary to write a column re-emphasizing that unhappy fact. Israel exists because, in 1948, a large number of European Jews, decimated by the Holocaust, established a Jewish state there, on land they had once dominated and which their religion taught them had been given to them by God. Many thousands of the Palestinians living there fled, or at any rate left, and have survived as refugees in nearby Muslim nations. They and their descendants, and the Palestinians who remained, have demanded "their" land back ever since.
Most of the world, and in particular the United States, having acquiesced in the creation of Israel in the first place, has continued to hope that a compromise peace can be achieved between the two sides, and meanwhile Israel, with indispensable American help, has turned itself into a military power thoroughly capable of self-defense and even armed with nuclear weapons.
But the Muslim nations of the region have, of course, remained loyal to the Palestinian cause, and continue to support it with economic and even military aid.
In the teeth of the determination of the two sides, the United States has stubbornly persisted in promoting a "peace process" which has predictably gotten nowhere, and President Bush's "road map" is simply the latest casualty of this illusion.
The ultimate outcome of the struggle will depend on developments -- demographic and political -- that cannot now be foreseen. But the victory of Hamas over Fatah basically changes nothing, because there was nothing to change. Eventually, by virtue of financial or other pressures, the "peace process" may conceivably be reconstructed and stumble on. But the underlying quarrel will not go away.
In the long run, the recognition of an elemental truth is never a mistake. In that sense, even Hamas' victory may constitute a sort of progress.