The victory of the Hamas movement in the recent Palestinian legislative election caught many people in and beyond Palestine by surprise, and has been greeted with some dismay in the West. I don't underestimate the alarming nature of Hamas's founding covenant, which calls for the dismantling of Israel as a Jewish state. But it would be foolish and counterproductive to overreact to the Hamas victory. Policymakers worldwide should remain calm, support an orderly transition of power inside Palestine, and take this opportunity to push for a rapid, final, and sustainable end to the decades-old conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
Paradoxically, such a peace agreement might be made easier, not harder, by the Hamas victory. This is primarily because Hamas, unlike the Fatah movement that it defeated at the polls, is a single, disciplined, national organization. It has shown this discipline in many ways. For example, over the past 10 months it has - with one exception - stuck by an agreement it reached with the other Palestinian parties to refrain from attacking Israel. It did that even though Israel never joined the cease-fire, and indeed carried out numerous anti-Hamas actions in that period. That 10-month cease-fire allowed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to carry out last summer's withdrawal from Gaza without Israeli troops receiving fire from Palestinians. It also allowed Palestinians to organize and campaign for all the recent rounds of elections.
During the cease-fire, Hamas operatives attacked Israel only once, after an explosion killed 19 people on a Hamas training ground in September. Hamas men launched rockets that wounded five Israelis, but then returned to observing the cease-fire. Meanwhile, throughout the whole cease-fire period, splinter groups of Fatah like the Al-Aqsa Brigades and Islamic Jihad breached the cease-fire repeatedly.
The strong internal discipline within Hamas, as opposed to the indiscipline and factionalism within Fatah, indicates that a strong Hamas leadership can be a more effective participant in peace diplomacy than the Fatah leadership has ever been. (Interestingly, this view has been expressed even by some Israelis.)
Fatah's lack of internal discipline contributed hugely to its defeat at the polls. Half the 132 seats being contested were filled through a nationwide proportional system. Hamas won 44 percent of votes cast and got 29 "national" seats. Fatah won 41 percent of votes and got 27 or 28 "national" seats. The other half of the seats were filled in district-wide, multimember contests. There, Hamas showed its discipline by running only the same number of candidates as there were seats, while Fatah's factions competed against each other in most districts, allowing Hamas to prevail. Hamas won 45 of the 66 district-based seats, giving it a commanding lead of 74 seats in the parliament.
The big challenge for the Palestinians, as in any emerging democracy, is not just to hold an election - they've done that before - but to ensure an orderly transfer of responsibility from one party to another. Hamas leaders say they want to form a national unity government, and to work closely with President Mahmoud Abbas, the veteran Fatah leader who received broad support in an election held last January. This decision is realistic, especially since Hamas only won 44 percent of the popular vote. They also say they're ready to prolong the cease-fire with Israel - but only on a reciprocal basis.
What about the reactions of Fatah, Israel, and the rest of the world? Some Fatah factions have already reacted violently to their imminent displacement from the power and patronage they have enjoyed till now, and there's a risk they might also try to stir things up with Israel. The Hamas commanders must act wisely and firmly to calm the whole situation. Intriguingly, Israel's Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz has already praised Hamas for acting "responsibly" since the election.
Washington, whether it likes it or not, is more deeply entangled in the affairs of the Middle East now than ever before. It has nearly 140,000 US troops in Iraq, and many of the supply lines on which they rely run through Jordan, where Hamas has hundreds of thousands of supporters. Some in Washington might be tempted to support Israeli hard- liners like Benjamin Netanyahu, who wants Israel's caretaker government to take tough action against Hamas. To do that, however, would be to court certain disaster - for everyone concerned.
Western governments - and Israel's - should be urging calm from all sides, while waiting for a stable national unity government to emerge in Palestine. Meanwhile, it's in the interests of all parties, including Americans, to prepare for the rapid launch - right after Israel's March elections - of a bold diplomatic campaign to end the Palestinian-Israeli conflict once and for all. Are Hamas and its supporters ready for that? They may well be. If they are, they'll be tough negotiators. But a peace settlement reached with Hamas would be far more durable than one made with the ever-vacillating and factionalized Fatah.
• Helena Cobban is writing a book on violence and its legacies.