No one should be lulled into a sense of false complacency: Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah Party is a terrorist group that has not turned away from its animosity toward Zionism. Only officials from the United States — coupled with a number of European nations — feel at ease designating Fatah loyalists as the "moderates" in this ever-changing and complex equation. The group's philosophy and language have not been tempered in any way; only in comparison to the bloodthirstiness of Hamas, which now rules Gaza with an iron fist, does Fatah look restrained and downright approachable.
But it should never be overlooked that in this newest of Middle Eastern "civil" wars, members of Fatah have exercised their own distinctive brand of murder and mayhem.
Still, there are those in this country and in the international community, to say nothing of Israel itself, who think that recent developments –Hamas' triumph in Gaza, the Fatah power grab in the West Bank, and the ultimate dissolution of the two groups' always fragile "unity" government — represent an opportunity, and a significant one at that.
Few have underestimated the implications for the region's future. Because the Hamas victory seems nearly complete, there can be little hope of any sort of rapprochement between the terror organization and Israel. That's the main reason why Abbas and Fatah look so good right about now, and clearly why Prime Minister Ehud Olmert vowed during his meeting with President Bush on Tuesday that he would work with the powers that be in the West Bank. Not only would he free up some Palestinian funds that had earlier been frozen, but he would work diligently toward the establishment of a Palestinian state.
None of this sounds wrong in theory, but there might be too much good cheer going around too early in the game. The smoke hasn't even cleared yet in Gaza, so why is it that Olmert is acting as if no obstacles exist in the West Bank? It has been reported that Abbas has been forging ties with members of the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, a Fatah-aligned terrorist group that did its share of suicide bombing attacks in Israel during the second intifada.
As Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, has pointed out, Abbas' track record in terms of control doesn't bode well for the future. Iran has obviously been lending a helping hand to Hamas in Gaza, so what's to say that it won't make its presence known in the West Bank as well.
And what would happen if Hezbollah decided to join in up in the north? The Palestinians might begin feeling the sort of triumphalism they've expressed in the past when it comes to Israel, and turn away from anything that smacks of moderation.
There are an awful lot of "what if's" in this scenario, though none of them seem all that exaggerated. These clear possibilities suggest that the approach most suited to the temper of recent developments is a healthy skepticism. Olmert was right to join forces with the president — and his commitment to creating a stable, democratic Palestinian state is laudable, and what's most needed in the region — but proceeding with caution from this point forward would be the wisest path to follow.