Friday, June 29, 2007

“Vote for the crook, not the kook.” That visually parallel phrase assumes that political criminality requires an appreciation of reality and consequences that political fanaticism inevitably lacks. The sleazy opportunist is less dangerous than the obsessed ideologue.

As a slogan “crook over kook” had immediate currency during Louisiana’s 1991 gubernatorial campaign, which pitted the ethically challenged Edwin Edwards against former Ku Klux Klansman David Duke. It reappeared in the 2002 French presidential election, when the slimy, smarmy, prevaricating Jacques Chirac defeated Jean-Marie Le Pen, an ex-paratrooper and arguably “Old Europe’s” best-known neo-fascist. Mr. Duke and Mr. Le Pen employed militant swagger and an updated “code language” richly littered with implicit violence. Both traits characterize the political fringe. To the credit of Louisiana and France the kooks went down to defeat.

As for the victorious crooks? Readers may gag, but Louisiana and France are democracies with the rule of law. Former Gov. Edwards ultimately went to jail. Former President Chirac now faces a judicial inquiry investigating several scandals during Mr. Chirac’s tenure as mayor of Paris.

These poor alternatives are a common political motif, though “human affliction” may be a more apt description. The crook and the kook run for city council and school board. The crook intends to shovel contracts to pals. The kook wants to lard school textbooks with conspiratorial drivel. But these American manifestations are merely irritating, neither murderous nor nation-shattering.

Pity the Palestinians. Their crooks, the corrupt Fatah, and their kooks, Islamist Hamas, both rule by the gun, not law. They had an election in 1996 where the crooks prevailed. In 2006, the kooks took control of the statelet.

The U.S. and Europe have decided to back the crooks. It’s not quite an echo of Louisiana 1991 and France 2002, but at the 3-by-5 card level of analysis, the U.S., Europe and Israel are making the same bet: that the corrupt Fatah, defeated in the latest flare-up of Palestinian civil war, understands the benefits of cooperation far better than Hamas’ firebrand ideologues. Will Fatah seize the opportunity?

Fatah’s gratefully dead Great Leader, Yasser Arafat, left a bitter legacy of missed opportunities.

Three years ago I wrote that Mr. Arafat’s biggest mistake was his rejection of the summer 2000 peace deal engineered by Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Barak and President Bill Clinton. I still think that’s the case. The Barak-Clinton deal would have given the Palestinians a Palestine, and Mr. Arafat the state that could have transformed him from stateless killer to statesman.

Any deal would have ignited an internecine Palestinian war between Palestinian secularists and Islamists, but instead of waging that necessary civil war with the support of the United States and Israel, Mr. Arafat chose renewed intifada. Mr. Arafat gambled that “internationalizing” the issue of Palestinian statehood might result in a “better deal.” It did not.

During his presidency, Mr. Arafat allegedly stole a billion dollars, filched from aid scams and rackets. His played classic the “Strong Man’s Game”: l’etat c’est moi. That stunted Palestinian political development.

Today the civil war between the secularists and Islamists is raging anyway. At the moment it is a fettered sort of civil war, with Hamas and Fatah security men fighting ganglike battles complete with street executions and rampage captured on television. Several commentators have suggested the latest Gaza shootouts (which Hamas won) were a preview of Iraq following a precipitate coalition military withdrawal. It is that, but in the larger picture it is also a sad reminder of the consequences of tyrannical rule by force.

Hamas has several advantages over Fatah. Iran and Syria have provided funds and weapons, giving it a tactical military advantage. Compared to Fatah, Hamas is far less corrupt, which is a political advantage. Fatah, however, may have the strategic advantage of offering an economically prosperous and physically secure future, a real-world future rather than Hamas’ apocalyptic Islamism.

American, European, Israeli and now Egyptian support means extraordinary political and financial assets. Israeli intelligence cooperation certainly gives Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas’ rump Palestinian government a leg up in stabilizing the West Bank, which Fatah still controls. Given the levels of assistance Mr. Abbas can expect, within two years the West Bank could prosper. Hamastan (Gaza) would slide in Islamist misery.

To seize the opportunity, Fatah must transition from a corrupt collection of local oligarchs to focused nation builders. Is it likely? If they don’t, they face either execution by Hamas death squads or permanent exile.

Austin Bay is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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