Only a few months ago, Hamas seemed an underdog to President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party in the campaign for the Palestinian legislature.
But a string of victories for the Islamist party in last week's municipal elections - coupled with a split in Fatah - have strengthened speculation that Hamas may get enough seats in the Jan. 25 parliament election to give it a veto over future peace negotiations with Israel.
The upheaval in Palestinian politics has dovetailed with a parallel development in Israel, where the ruling Likud party is to hold a leadership primary Monday after being abandoned by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Mr. Sharon's departure from the party that dominated Israeli governments for most of the past three decades - and his formation of a new centrist party - has helped drive Likud to a distant third in public opinion polls.
The results of Palestinian municipal elections last Thursday handed Hamas control of the West Bank cities of Nablus, Jenin, and el-Bireh, Ramallah's twin city.
Ironically, Hamas's success is more a reflection of anger at government corruption and the growing infighting within the party established by Yasser Arafat, rather than a vote of confidence in the Islamic militants' prescription for armed struggle instead of peace talks, analysts say.
But a Hamas victory in the parliament would nevertheless complicate relations with Israel, as well the US and Europe, which have been leading efforts to restart the frozen "road map'' peace initiative.
"If they are the majority of the Palestinian legislative council, they can block the Palestinian Authority in doing a lot of things. They can topple the government if they are not satisfied with its political path," says Mohammad Yaghi, a Ramallah-based political commentator. "Palestinians are protesting the anarchy in the Palestinian Authority, and the division among Fatah. They are not supporting Hamas's radical program. This is important to note."
And yet, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana warned Sunday that the EU could halt tens of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians if the militant Hamas group wins next month's Palestinian elections and fails to renounce violence, the Associated Press reported Sunday.
The EU warning came after the US House of Representatives passed a resolution Friday stating that US support for the Palestinian Authority (PA) would be at risk by any Hamas participation in government.
The woes of Fatah reflect Mr. Abbas's inability to fill the leadership vacuum left by Mr. Arafat after his death in November 2004, but are ultimately rooted in a party composed of disparate politicians and militants whose only common denominator was a loyalty to the man who came to symbolize Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
The "bequest" of Arafat, as Palestinian observers like to call it, is a party shot through with internal rivalries, whether it be a dozen or so security wings of the PA, the far-flung militant underground of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, or the simmering feud between contemporaries of Arafat who returned to the Palestinian territories in 1994 after the Oslo peace accord and a younger cohort of homegrown leaders.
In the four rounds of municipal voting, Hamas was helped to victory because ballots were often split between multiple candidates running from Fatah. The prospect of a repeat in the parliamentary voting became likely when a faction representing Fatah's younger generation, calling themselves "The Future,"' said it would run under a separate slate.
The two groups said that they would reunite after the vote, the Associated Press reported.
"Fatah is like the Likud, they have a death wish. It's a subconscious suicidal tendency," says Shmuel Bar, a Middle East expert at the Herzlyia Interdisciplinary Center, referring to the infighting that drove the Israeli prime minister to form a new political party.
The infighting distracted Fatah from presenting a coherent message to voters, leaving Hamas with an easy anti-incumbency campaign based around promises of reform and clean government.
Although public opinion surveys show support for Hamas to range between one-fourth and one-third of the Palestinian public, analysts say that 40 percent of the legislature is a realistic goal for the Islamists and some believe that a majority could be within reach.
That has raised the prospect of a coalition government with Hamas-appointed cabinet ministers. Political observers say that Hamas would seek domestic-oriented ministries rather than portfolios that would force it to become involved in negotiations with Israel.
And yet, analysts cautioned that Hamas's popularity in municipal voting won't necessarily translate into a parliamentary victory.
"People's considerations at the local level are different than their considerations at the national level," says Khalil Shikaki, who heads the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. "Hamas will have a real difficult time. Hamas can only promise people more violence at a time when people don't want violence."
The pollster doubted whether Hamas would win a majority in the 132-seat legislature or even a plurality. At a time an overwhelming majority supports a continuation of the 11-month-old calm in fighting, Shikaki says most Palestinians see the economy as the most important issue, and believe that Fatah rather than Hamas is better able to improve their standard of living.
• Material from wire services was used in this article.