WASHINGTON -- Much of the world's focus is on the implications of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's likely departure from politics and what it means for the future of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Yet of great significance will be how the election campaign plays out for the Palestinian Legislative Council.
The campaign began over a week ago, and elections are scheduled for Jan. 25, but things haven't been going smoothly. Not only did Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party split and then regroup, but armed attacks by Fatah militias on election offices have been rampant.
Much of the disorder is a result of internal feuding between older and younger members of Fatah, the party of the late Yasser Arafat. The underlying reason for the clash is disagreement over how to prevent Fatah's biggest challenger, the Islamic Resistance Movement, or Hamas, from winning the election.
The issue of a Hamas victory is not merely about a political battle between two parties in the Palestinian territories. It is about the future of a Palestinian state. The fundamental problem with having an armed terrorist group such as Hamas in power is that it mocks a basic tenet of the democratic process: There should be one, centrally controlled military subject to civilian review (what Mr. Abbas refers to as "one authority, one law and one gun").
Further, the presence of Hamas as an armed force in government, combined with its call to destroy Israel, will delay any resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For this reason, it was a grave mistake for Mr. Abbas to allow Hamas to participate in the elections without first handing over its weapons or renouncing its call to destroy Israel. This invited Hamas into the political arena without requiring any concessions from it in return.
The recent infighting within Fatah has only strengthened Hamas' image as a disciplined, noncorrupt alternative to the status quo. As Fatah is unraveling and Mr. Abbas is showing weakness, the likelihood of Hamas' dominance is growing. Indeed, recent polling indicates there is a possibility that Fatah might not win a majority of seats in the 132-member legislature.
As a result, some in Fatah have called for postponing the elections to stave off a Hamas triumph. But this would only delay the inevitable. While it is important to try to restrict Hamas' dominance in the elections, Mr. Abbas must lay the political groundwork for his political agenda - negotiations with Israel and the abolition of armed militias - to be approved, even with a strong Hamas presence in the legislature.
First, Mr. Abbas must work to build political strength by solidifying the executive branch, which he controls, as independent from the legislature. The more Mr. Abbas separates himself from Fatah candidates during the campaign, the more command he will hold the morning after Election Day.
Mr. Abbas, who is not up for re-election, must stay above the political fray of the campaign and continue to press his executive agenda. This will be a challenge in the face of Hamas' campaign message, one that will bring up past Fatah and Palestinian Authority corruption. But Mr. Abbas has the tools he needs to press his agenda - the 62 percent of the vote with which he was elected a year ago on a platform advocating moderation, negotiation and law and order.
Mr. Abbas' goal must be to use his mandate to build a rising tide of public support for his plan to disarm elected groups and halt violence against Israel. Public pressure can be an effective weapon against Hamas because the group is strongly in tune with public opinion -through sophisticated opinion polling, some say - and tries to garner and maintain public support.
Arguably, the lack of violence by Hamas during Israel's disengagement from the Gaza Strip last summer was a result of strong public opposition to attacks that could have put the withdrawal in jeopardy.
Will the Palestinian public support Mr. Abbas' message? Hamas' dominance in the latest round of municipal elections showed that there are Palestinians who, if given the choice, will vote for an extremist party with guns.
This runs counter to the Bush administration's prediction that the democratic process can have a "transformative effect" on people, causing them to shun violent parties. But while Palestinians might not support the Islamic extremism of Hamas, they are not single-issue voters. Hamas provides social services and condemns corruption, which is in stark contrast to Fatah's image of mismanagement and cronyism.
Therefore, Mr. Abbas should separate his anti-violence message from the electoral fate of his fractured Fatah party. Doing so would allow him to use his mandate to tap a strong majority of Palestinians, even those who vote for Hamas, to press for moderation.
This might be a long shot, but it also might be Mr. Abbas' last chance of controlling Hamas if it wins.
Ariel Kastner is a research assistant at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.