Analysis: Will this mean a path to peace or a road to war?

In one sense, of course, the volatile new politics of the Middle East, the seismic shock of what Palestinian electors have done, and the Israeli elections still to come, is a function of the absence of two men: Yasser Arafat, who died in November 2004, and Ariel Sharon, who suffered a major stroke this January.

They were old enemies, the latter wishing aloud he had killed the former when he had the chance. But they had something in common (for three decades or more in the late Palestinian president's case, only very recently in the case of the Israeli Prime Minister): an ability to embody for many in their constituencies a sense of nationhood that went beyond mere party politics. After Mr Arafat died, it was surely high time for a new generation to emerge within Fatah, the organisation he founded with Abu Jihad in 1959 and which was so severely trounced in Wednesday's election.

Ironically, Mahmoud Abbas, though strictly a member of the "old guard", seems to have seen this. He is now again the man of the moment, the one man no one, including many in Israel and the West, who could have done more to help him during the past year, wants to resign as President.

But while he managed to see off Ahmad Qureia his unco-operative Prime Minister, and to install the jailed Marwan Barghouti (whom Israel may finally see the advantage of releasing) as number one on the candidate's list, many of those who remained on that list were associated with inefficiency, corruption and sclerosis.

This does not mean Fatah is dead. But it is hard to see it rebuilding other than under a collective leadership dominated by the post-Arafat, Barghouti generation.

After Mr Sharon was stricken, many thought that his own political apparatus would fragment and divide, much as Mr Arafat's did after his death.

That could still happen. The Likud leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, for all his appearance of gravity, has been all but triumphalist in claiming the Hamas election victory as a vindication of his argument that the Gaza disengagement "rewarded terrorism". If he can persuade voters of that he poses a real threat to Kadima, the Sharon-founded centre party which is now in the hands of Ehud Olmert.

For now, it looks otherwise; it is far from clear that Israeli electors think Mr Netanyahu is the man for uncertain times. And the polls so far suggest Kadima's policy of gradual and limited disengagement from occupied territory still finds favour with enough of the electors to put the centre party in first place on 28 March. But two months is a long time.

Few foresaw the scale of Hamas's victory, or for that matter that Amir Peretz would win the leadership of the Israeli Labour Party from the left. If Wednesday's upset proved anything it is that the politics of this region is becoming tougher and tougher to predict.

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