There are election upsets and election upsets. Most often, people know when one is coming. Whether in the case of Bill Clinton's upset of George Bush Sr. in 1992, or the GOP takeover of Congress in 1994, or the recent Canadian election booting the Liberal party after 13 years of Parliamentary control and a kickback scandal, people pretty much know these results are coming because of polling that takes place ahead of the election. And this is true internationally as well. For example, in the British elections, the polls predicted that Tony Blair would get his wings clipped but survive. That happened. In the German election, the polls predicted that Andrea Merkel would replace Gerhard Schroeder, and she did. Polls showed ahead of the recall election that Venezuela's Hugo Chavez faced two years ago that he would win by a huge margin, and he did. In the recent Iraqi elections, polls predicted that the main Shiite party would win but not by enough to form a government all by themselves. Although the Shiites did a little better than expected (finishing ten votes short of an outright majority when the polls had predicted about twice that far), the polls were essentially correct. Polls also picked the winners of the recent elections in Chile and Bolivia.
So, polling showing on the eve of the Palestinian election that Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party would retain power despite a stiff challenge at the ballot box from Hamas, seemed to be the case early on, when returns showed Fatah with a narrow lead. So I went to bed believing that they had won the election. Wrong. Hamas, a terrorist group which has specialized in sending suicide bombers into Israel and which calls for the complete eradication of Israel, won a shocking victory. This one was truly under the radar. It is clear that the people who polled Palestinian voters need to work on their science. And it is clear that the vote was less for Hamas, than it was against a government led by Fatah which has been corrupt, ineffective and unable to deliver peace. And the fact is that Hamas has used the money they have collected for 1) arms, and 2) to deliver services for poor Palestinians (who turned out in droves to elect them). What they have not done with it is enrich themselves (Arafat died with a fortune in banks around the world-- much in contrast to the grinding poverty that his people faced), so at least as far as getting rid of the corruption, they seemed well poised to do that.
The victory, which surprised even Hamas leaders, presents both a dilemma and an opportunity for peace.
The dilemma is obvious. Israel cannot sit down at the peace table with people whose only peace objective is to destroy them. And in the short term, it seems likely that the Israeli electorate is most likely to elect a candidate to lead that country who is a hawk as well (this outcome bodes well for Netanyahu in particular), fearing that Hamas in actual control of the Palestinian Authority will be a deadly threat. And they are right, if Hamas chooses to use its control to conduct more sophisticated and larger scale attacks against Israel.
There is also an opportunity here. One that is unseen right now, but could be exactly what is needed. The opportunity will present itself if Hamas, recognizing that they now have to govern, matures to the point that they see themselves as representing the nascent Palestinian state, as opposed to greater Palestine (i.e. getting rid of Israel). And they did leave the door open to that in their first public statements, reiterating their position on getting rid of Israel, but also reiterating their pre-election 'truce' opposing attacks on Israel, and stating that they are still abiding by it. They will inevitably have to deal with Israeli government officials in matters ranging from border crossings to water usage, and as such will inevitably be forced to acknowlege the existence of Israel. Of course, Israel has refused to negotiate with Hamas representatives as well, so I suspect these contacts will be done behind closed doors, and likely through intermediaries such as Egypt or Jordan, arab countries which have contacts now with Israel.
And whatever Hamas' official position is, they are likely smart enough to figure out that if they took the forces available to the Palestinian Authority into a full out war with the Israeli military, the result would be the destruction of the Authority and would set back any hopes for a Palestinian state by at least a generation.
But the real reason to be optimistic in the long run (though pessimistic right now) is based on an observation of the qualitative difference between Israel and the Fatah government of Arafat and Abbas: Israel could, and did, keep their promises even in the face of intense domestic opposition (the recent forced evacuation of the Gaza settlements being a case in point.) And Israel has had leaders like Menachem Begin, Yitzhak Rabin and Ariel Sharon, who despite sometimes being considered as terrorists by their opponents, could at the same time command the respect and support of their people and be able to back up any offer they made at the peace table both with strength and with their good word. In contrast, after Arafat walked away from the Barak deal and went along with those who wanted to start the 'intifada,' I remember a very profound summary of Arafat's actual authority over the Palestinians from a Palestinian man I remember discussing it with once on the CNN message boards. He said something to the effect that, 'Arafat has the authority to say, 'yes' to those who wanted to riot. In other words, he was the acknowledged leader mainly because the west recognized him as such, but in fact, his real authority extended only as far as he went along with the people who wanted to attack. Abbas didn't even have as much pull as Arafat, and so his party was dumped unceremoniously as soon as the Palestinian people had a chance to do so (Abbas remains technically the President of the Palestinian Authority, but he presides over a parliament that is dominated by Hamas). In fact, this election only validates what many have known for a long time: that Hamas, not the Palestinian Authority, has been the real power among the Palestinians for the past few years. And here is the reason for long term optimism even if it will start off on a rocky road: Unlike Fatah, Hamas can actually make their current truce or any other moves towards peace they make stick, because they have both the moral authority and reputation for ruthlessness among Palestinians (and no, that is not an oxymoron in that part of the world) to make it stick. Hamas, if they can be induced to accept reality and the fact that Israel will remain on the map, has one card that Fatah (under both Arafat and Abbas) never had. They can tell even the biggest hotheads among the Palestinians, either 'yes' OR 'no' when it comes to carrying out attacks. And if someone violated their directive, well let's say I wouldn't want to be that someone (including anyone who cooperated with them.) So while Hamas is not now a suitable negotiating partner, and won't be as long as they insist on the destruction of Israel, ultimately they may hold the most necessary card that Israel has proven they have, but was missing in Arafat's hand-- the ability to make any agreement reached hold, on their side.