If the U.S. and its allies want to avoid another Hamas victory, they should reconsider their demand that the Palestinians hold another free election. Otherwise they will be repeating the same mistake they made in 2006.

Backed by the U.S., the Egyptians are now pushing the Palestinians toward holding new elections for president and parliament. By doing so, Cairo and Washington are taking a big risk:  There is no guarantee that a majority of Palestinians would not vote for Hamas again.

Palestinians went to the polls three times in the past fives years to vote - - Twice they voted for Hamas.

Hamas candidates scored major victories in the municipal and parliamentary elections.

Hamas boycotted the presidential election that was held in January 2005, and which brought Mahmoud Abbas to power. Had Hamas participated in the presidential election, some Palestinians argue that its chances of winning that vote too would have been good.

Prior to the January 2006 parliamentary election, the US, Israel and many Western countries ignored warnings that Hamas was headed toward victory. Hamas won that vote largely because of the Palestinian publics disenchantment with Fatah's corruption, mismanagement and abuse of power.

Such was the degree of contempt for Fatah and its representatives that even Christians and secular Palestinians cast their ballots for the radical Islamic movement.

Fatah itself was even so aware of its poor performance and blunders that it dispatched some of its representatives to the US in a bid to persuade the Bush Administration to abandon its plan to hold free elections in the Palestinian territories.

Today Fatah is not in a better situation and its chances of winning in the planned elections next year do not appear to be high.

Fatah's dwindling popularity is mainly attributed to the faction's failure to draw conclusions from its defeat to Hamas in the 2006 election - Fatah’s failure to reform itself and get rid of icons of financial corruption and thugs who continue to call the shots in the faction.

The feeling among many Palestinians is that Fatah, the largest faction of the PLO, is continuing to march backward ever since it lost one of its founders and symbols, Yasser Arafat.

In the past few weeks, Fatah's credibility suffered one blow after another.

First, Fatah's Sixth General Assembly, which was held in Bethlehem for the first time in 20 years, failed to inject new and fresh blood into the faction. Instead, Fatah saw the return of most of Arafat's former cronies who were responsible for abuse of human rights, mismanagement and financial corruption.

Second, Fatah's open affiliation and cooperation with Israel and the US is causing tremendous damage to its credibility among Palestinians. This, of course, plays into the hands of Hamas. The next election will be presented as a contest between “collaborators with Israel and America” (Fatah), and Muslim candidates who reject any form of affiliation with the West.

Third, the recent summit in New York, where the US literally forced Abbas to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, has made Fatah appear as if it is incapable of taking independent decisions. For months, Abbas had vowed not to meet with Netanyahu or resume peace talks with Israel unless construction in the settlements was completely halted.

Fourth, Abbas's decision to withdraw a proposal to the UN Human Rights Council regarding the report of Justice Richard Goldstone on the Gaza war has also undermined his credibility among many Palestinians. Abbas and Fatah are now being accused of “helping Israel bury its war crimes.”

Meanwhile, Hamas appears to be increasing its power. A prisoner-exchange agreement with Israel, which would see the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jail in return for IDF soldier Gilad Schalit, will undoubtedly boost Hamas's popularity.

Despite its failure to improve the living conditions of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and its responsibility for the ongoing suffering there, Hamas is still admired by many because of its continued defiance and refusal to bow to US, Israeli and Arab pressure.

Barring last-minute obstacles, Hamas and Fatah are expected to sign a “reconciliation” accord on October 22 in the Egyptian capital of Cairo.

The Egyptian-brokered agreement calls, among other things, for holding presidential and parliamentary elections in the Palestinian territories sometime during the first half of 2010.  

Under such circumstances, it is easy to see why Hamas could win the next election.

 

 

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