Does Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas know something that we don't? For five days his presidential security forces in Gaza came under organized attack by Hamas gunmen. His compound in Gaza City was under siege. But he responded to these clear challenges to his authority with observations about the madness that had infected Gaza and refused to assign blame.
One might expect that this democratically elected leader would denounce Hamas's coup and call for international intervention to restore his control. But there he sat in Ramallah, prevaricating as the only liberated part of his putative state fell into the hands of his Palestinian archenemies. Finally yesterday, he dismissed the Hamas-led government, but only after its takeover of Gaza was complete.
Critics will say that this is typical of Abbas, a weak leader who would rather appease his challengers than confront them. But perhaps Abbas understands the emerging realities better than they do.
Over the past year when Hamas would stage attacks in Gaza, Fatah forces would retaliate in the West Bank, where they were stronger. When fighting began this time, Fatah did little in the West Bank to counter Hamas's onslaught. Abbas's passivity further confirms that the fix was in. Abbas and Fatah have in effect conceded Gaza to Hamas while they hold on to the West Bank. Hamastan and Fatahstine: a "two-state solution" -- just not the one that George W. Bush had in mind.
Of course, all Palestinian leaders will continue to declare the indivisibility of the Palestinian homeland. But in private, Abbas and other Fatah leaders may take solace from the dilemma Hamas will now have to confront.
The failed state of Gaza that Hamas controls is wedged between Egypt and Israel. Its water, electricity and basic goods are imported from the Jewish state, whose destruction Hamas has declared as its fundamental objective. One more Qassam rocket fired from Gaza into an Israeli village and Israel could threaten to seal the border if Hamas did not stop its attacks. Hamas would then have to reach a meaningful cease-fire with Israel or seek Egypt's help meeting the basic needs of the 1.5 million Gazans. Hosni Mubarak's regime turned a blind eye to the importation of weapons and money that helped ensure Hamas's takeover. But would Egypt allow on its border a failed terrorist state run by an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood with links to Iran and Hezbollah? Or will it insist on the maintenance of certain standards of order in return for its cooperation?
Whatever transpires, Gaza has become Hamas's problem. It's a safe bet that the real attitude of Abbas and Fatah is: Let Hamas try to rule Gaza, and good luck.
This turn of events would free Abbas to focus on the much more manageable West Bank, where he can depend on the Israel Defense Forces to suppress challenges from Hamas, and on Jordan and the United States to help rebuild his security forces. As chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian Authority, Abbas is empowered to negotiate with Israel over the disposition of the West Bank. Once he controls the territory, he could make a peace deal with Israel that establishes a Palestinian state with provisional borders in the West Bank and the Arab suburbs of East Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Palestinians in Gaza could compare their fate under Hamas's rule with the fate of their West Bank cousins under Abbas -- which might then force Hamas to come to terms with Israel, making it eventually possible to reunite Gaza and the West Bank as one political entity living in peace with the Jewish state. It's hard to believe that such a benign outcome could emerge from the growing Palestinian civil war. But given current events, this course is likely to become Abbas's best option.
Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has an interest in this outcome, too. Elected on a mandate to leave the West Bank, Olmert was gravely weakened by the Lebanon war last summer. His best hope for political salvation lies in movement on the peace process. With Ehud Barak's election as Labor Party leader, Olmert now has a partner with security credentials who can lend him credibility and who may also want to prevent the West Bank from going Gaza's way.
For the Bush administration, the outcome in Gaza is an embarrassment. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has committed her last 18 months in office to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A failed terrorist state in Gaza is hardly what she had in mind for a legacy. Some will argue that it's time she talked to Hamas. But its thuggish, extraconstitutional behavior in Gaza and its commitment to the destruction of Israel make it an unlikely partner, at least until governing Gaza forces it to act more responsibly. And that leaves a "West Bank first" policy as Rice's best option, too.
Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He served as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration.