The Palestinian people spoke their mind and many around the world were shocked. Now, after we have all had a chance to take a deep breath, it is time to evaluate the new reality.
While the reasons for the rise to power of Hamas are complicated, one thing is clear: The Palestinians wanted an alternative to the Fatah government.
Palestinians have elected Hamas for three main reasons: first, the inability of Fatah to maintain law and order; second, the frustration with the entrenched corruption in the party; third, the nonexistent "peace process," which led nowhere, and, in fact, had a devastating impact on daily life of Palestinians.
There are as many opportunities as there are challenges with a Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority.
First, a strange convergence of interests between Hamas and Kadima can lead to a long-term tahdya (calm) on the one hand and continuing disengagement on the other.
The next Israeli government led by the new Kadima Party will be interested in a unilateral disengagement to establish Israel's eastern border. Hamas, in order to address the reforms it promised, will be interested in a long-term truce. Both sides will present the actions taken by the other as a victory and evidence for the success of their way. All this, without ever sitting at a negotiation table.
Second, the elections could be seen as a chance to build the Palestinian political, social and economic infrastructure. Hamas' top priority is to eliminate Fatah's corruption and build a legitimate government that is accountable and transparent.
These reforms are crucial and beneficial not only to Palestinians but also to Israel and the international community, regardless of who conducts them. A long-term truce and a Palestinian clean house are fundamental for an economic recovery, restoration of services and an enhancement of Palestinians' daily welfare. A more satisfied and hopeful public has much to lose from violent conflict and is therefore a stakeholder in peace.
Third, the Palestinians have passed a democratic point of no return. Now that they have changed a government through free and fair elections, Palestinians know that they control their own destiny by casting votes. There are many promises to keep, and the challenge for Hamas is to live up to its promises. Should Hamas fail to deliver, the Palestinian people have the ability to remove them from power in the next elections.
Free and fair elections followed by apparent peaceful transition of power, all within the framework of existing democratic institutions and procedures, serve as an important precedent and a huge building block for other Middle East countries struggling with democratic reforms.
Making the most of these opportunities is not going to be easy. Let's not kid ourselves, Hamas is not likely to recognize Israel's right to exist anytime soon. The two sides may not talk to each other directly or officially. Moreover, the upcoming election campaign in Israel is most likely to produce a militant rhetoric toward Hamas that will not be beneficial in stabilizing the situation.
So how do we get there from here? There are several things the United States and the international community can do.
First, a high bar must be set for Hamas -- high but not unreasonable. Merely participating in free and fair elections does not make Hamas a legitimate political party in a democratic regime. While the end goal ought to be the full integration of Hamas into the political system, which includes Hamas renouncing violence, we must be cognizant that constantly pounding the message might result in a backlash. The United States does not want to be viewed as making it impossible for Hamas to govern, which would only expose the United States to blame when things go wrong.
To this end, it is imperative that any legislation in Congress leaves enough room for diplomatic maneuvering as events unfold. The United States and the world made their requirements for Hamas clear: Renounce terrorism and recognize Israel's right to exist. Now let's give Hamas the space to make its own difficult decisions.
And we should not prejudge the future Palestinian government before it is formed. Governments do not talk to parties; they talk to governments. We must look beyond the Hamas Party and toward the new government's guidelines.
Even a Hamas-led government can have acceptable parameters that allow productive contacts and engagement. The PLO never changed its charter calling for the destruction of Israel, yet the Palestinian Authority had no such call in its guidelines and was able to be a valid player in the international community.
At the same time, the United States and Israel need to allow for the unification of all Palestinian militias under one authority and one law. It is ironic that the international community is hoping for presidential control over the security forces, merely a year after pressuring Arafat to delegate these powers to Mahmoud Abbas, then the prime minister.
If power is handed to Abbas, Iz al-Din al-Qassam, the Hamas military wing, will it maintain its independence as a resistance army, rather than evolving into an army of the government. Pressuring Abbas to have ultimate power over the security forces will only create more divisions -- and hamper efforts to halt corruption. Intervention by the international community will complicate matters and might lead to domestic violence.
Integration of Fatah and Hamas forces into one organization under Palestinian government control would be difficult but also crucial for the long-term realization of the "one authority, one law, one gun" principle.
The path ahead will not be easy. The period ahead of us may be marred by violence. Governments in transition are often faced with threats of conflict and turmoil.
The Hamas transition into power is no different. The international community would be wise to resist the temptation of speedy measures aimed at isolating the Palestinians. The starvation of a people -- whether it be actual, diplomatic or political -- never leads to moderation.
Although an end to conflict is not in sight, the alternative must not be violence. A major event took place in the Middle East this year, and the international community must seize the opportunities it presents.
Bushra M. Jawabri is a Palestinian refugee currently working at the World Bank; Michael (Mickey) Bergman is a former officer in the Israeli Defense Forces and works at the Center for Middle East Peace & Economic Cooperation. Bergman and Jawabri are graduates of the master of foreign service program at Georgetown University.