A decade since its creation, the Palestinian Authority looms as an exercise in political futility.
The Palestinian cause was blessed from the outset with political and financial backing thanks to automatic support from the Eastern and Nonaligned Blocs, and thanks to Arab petrodollars.
The Oslo Accords allowed much of this clout to be safely transferred to the post-Cold War era, and in fact be dramatically expanded, as even the PLO's most sworn enemies - Israel and the US - recognized it, and as the world's richest countries went out of their way to try to help the newly established PA onto its feet.
Alas, all this has pretty much been squandered. As the PA returned to the violence option, its official leaders gradually lost much of the free world's ears, hearts, and pockets.
Moreover, even back when funds flowed in earnest, they were not being used the way their donors had intended. The establishment of a huge public sector dominated by an elaborate system of security organizations has left the Palestinian public still largely dependent on others - often Israelis - for its livelihood.
Meanwhile, the shackling of the entrepreneurial class to the PA's statist norms has left local infrastructure antiquated and obstructed the paths to opportunity of the young and educated.
The result of the social decay that all this created was the political vacuum which Hamas and Islamic Jihad arrived to fill.
The Palestinian fundamentalists' successful delivery of various social services where the PA failed to supply them has constantly eroded the PA's following, and bolstered its already alarming resort to confrontation with Israel as a response to the challenge to its authority.
For now, one might argue that Yasser Arafat's glue is holding together two halves that otherwise have little in common.
Others might argue that the whole dichotomy between the original PLO and today's Hamas and Islamic Jihad is artificial, since they hardly differ in their attitudes toward in Israel, and those in turn are their real raison d'etre.
However, having effectively wasted the opportunity that Oslo offered them, the choice the Palestinians now face is not political, but cultural. Theirs is no longer a contest between two groups vying for power, but between prevalent social forces which fear acceptance of Israel in particular and engagement with the free world in general.
One of the most interesting aspects of the Oslo Accords was its creators' domestic common denominator. Both Arafat and Shimon Peres represented veteran, secularist movements on the political decline. However, while the Israeli partners in that deal have stood for election several times since 1993, the Palestinian struggle has been difficult to follow since it takes place in a totalitarian setting.
For now, we can only judge the Palestinian public's inclinations by the extent to which it joins Hamas rallies, which is debatable, and the extent to which it confronts Hamas, which is negligible.
Incidentally, while Hamas was gathering popularity in Gaza and the West Bank, an Israeli movement that combined religious fervor and social compassion - Shas - was also soaring. Yet there was one difference: Shas made it to the corridors of power, and gradually lost its social appeal and political momentum. That is also what happened to Iran's clerics.
It follows that whether it happens before or after Hamas inherits the PA, ultimately the Palestinians will have to choose what the PA fails to deliver and Hamas fails to appreciate: life.
©2004 - Jerusalem Post