The outcome of today's election for president of the Palestinian Authority was never in doubt. Mahmoud Abbas, Yasser Arafat's longtime accomplice -- the two men co-founded Fatah, the largest terrorist faction within the PLO, in 1965 -- was always going to win in a landslide. The three other candidates were never going to get more than a sliver of the vote. That they got any votes at all was impressive, given the virtual news blackout on their campaigns by the Fatah-controlled Palestinian media and the bullying of anyone tempted to support them. The New York Sun described some of the arm-twisting on Dec. 31:
"One of the reasons none of the three candidates has received much support is intimidation by the PA [Palestinian Authority]. `People are afraid to be seen even reading their campaign literature,' says one Palestinian. . . . The message that the people have received from various leaders of the PA is that if they vote for a candidate other than Mr. Abbas, they will either lose jobs they already have in the PA or will not be hired by the PA in the future. Since the PA is the largest employer in the West Bank and Gaza, the threat carries a great deal of weight.
"Physical intimidation has also played a role. . . . On Wednesday, shots were fired at [candidate Bassam el] Salhi's offices in Ramallah . . . ."
Surely this isn't what President Bush had in mind when he said, in his seminal June 2002 address on the Arab-Israeli war, that the United States would support the creation of a Palestinian state if the Palestinians would first "build a practicing democracy, based on tolerance and liberty." Nor can Abbas, who spent decades at Arafat's side and who has been unyielding in his refusal to crack down on Palestinian gunmen and bombers, be what Bush meant when he insisted that Palestinians "elect new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror." So why has the administration bent over backward to support the election and give its blessing to Abbas?
On Dec. 29, the State Department transferred $23.5 million to the Palestinian Authority -- a mark, said assistant Secretary of State William Burns, of American "confidence in the direction of the PA's reform program." The absurdity of such confidence was made clear one day later, when Abbas brazenly campaigned with members of the al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade in Jenin. A picture of Abbas riding on the shoulders of Zakaria Zubeidi -- a notorious terrorist and one of Israel's most wanted men -- was published around the globe.
Yet when Colin Powell was asked about it, he shrugged. The photo is "disturbing," he conceded, but "I don't think it reflects Mr. Abbas's overall approach to governing."
Please. The embrace of Zubeidi was no anomaly. Abbas is sometimes described as a "moderate" opposed to terrorism, but his opposition is purely tactical. He has no *moral* problem with blowing up buses and cafes, he simply thinks such methods are, for now, counterproductive. Last week, Abbas hailed Palestinian gunmen in Gaza, but urged them to stop firing rockets at Israeli towns. Because deliberately targeting civilians is wrong? No. "Because this is not the proper time for such actions." Hardly the words of a moderate.
Again and again, Abbas has expressed his solidarity with violent extremists. Last month he traveled to Damascus to meet with some of the region's most implacable terror groups, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the Popular Front For the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. Afterward, Abbas's "foreign minister," Nabil Sha'ath, declared that between the Palestinian Authority and the other groups, "there are no differences over the objectives."
And what are those objectives? About that, Abbas has been explicit. In recent weeks he has promised to shelter terrorists from Israeli arrest and vowed that there will be no PA crackdown on Palestinian terrorism. He hews unswervingly to Yasser Arafat's hardline positions -- an Israeli retreat to the 1949 armistice lines, Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital, the elimination of every Jewish settlement, the dismantling of Israel's security fence, and no limit on the "right of return" -- code for the abolition of Israel as a Jewish state.
Abbas is no moderate. His election is not a step toward peace. What was true in Afghanistan and Iraq is true in the Palestinian Authority as well: Without regime change, freedom and democracy are impossible. Just as the defeat of the Taliban and Ba'athists were a prerequisite to elections, so the dismantling of the corrupt Fatah autocracy is essential to Palestinian reform. President Bush got it right in 2002: The Palestinians need "new leaders . . . not compromised by terror." They still do.
Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.