The stunning victory of the militant group Hamas over the Fatah party in the Palestinian election has caused much handwringing in the United States and Israel. But U.S. and Israeli policies indirectly helped bring about that result. Yet despite the Bush administration’s bungling, perhaps something can still be done to salvage U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Although Hamas calls for Israel’s destruction, the Israelis originally secretly supported Hamas as an alternative to the then stronger Fatah organization, led by Israel’s archrival Yaser Arafat. Arafat is now dead, Fatah is in shambles, and Hamas has grown into a monster. Also, instead of negotiating with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Arafat’s more moderate successor, the Israelis undermined him by unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, building a security wall through the West Bank, and continuing settlement expansion there. The Bush administration wholeheartedly supported Israel’s unilateralism and agreed that Israel could keep large settlements in the West Bank and could refuse refugees the right of return to Palestine.

Many analysts, trying to find any sort of civil lining in a dark cloud, emphasize that most Palestinians were voting against Fatah’s corruption rather than for Hamas’s policy of destroying Israel. To some extent, this may be true, but Palestinians were also radicalized by the Bush administration’s invasion of Iraq and the pre-election exposure of its attempt to aid Fatah at the polls by funding public works projects in Palestine.

The Bush administration told us that the road to peace in Jerusalem passed through Baghdad—that is, ousting the authoritarian Saddam Hussein would create democratic dominoes in despotic Arabic countries. The implication was that those new democracies would be more amenable to settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many experts on that part of the world, however, believed that in democratic elections, uncompromising fundamentalist Islamic forces, such as Hamas, would do well or even win. Unfortunately, the administration did not consult many of these specialists, who turned out to be right, not only about Palestine, but also about Iran, Iraq and Egypt. Clearly democratic elections do not guarantee freedom, liberty, and a respect for human rights.

At the same time, the administration has underestimated how much the United States is hated in the Islamic world. The best recommendation to improve U.S. policy in the Middle East: Stop coercing and threatening autocratic governments in order to promote democracy and take a lower profile in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

President Bush initially took a lower profile in the Middle East but, like his predecessors, was sucked into the swirling vortex of Middle East politics. Now that Hamas has won a resounding victory, hardliners will probably do well in the upcoming Israeli elections. Although Hamas and any new Israeli government probably will have to be more pragmatic than their rhetoric indicates, Palestinians and Israelis will be farther than ever from settling the decades-old conflict. The Israelis were unable to reach a final negotiated settlement with Arafat and the moderate Abbas and are even more unlikely to do so with the more strident Hamas.

Many experts say that democracies that appreciate liberty—that is, liberal democracies—have to grow from an incipient culture of freedom rather than being coerced from the top down by an outside power. The United States can rhetorically support democratic forces in any country, but those elements can also be easily discredited if the U.S. funds them or tries to support them by intimidating the target authoritarian government.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—let alone guaranteeing any settlement with U.S. prestige and money—is not a strategic necessity for the United States. When the Israelis and Palestinians are truly ready for genuine negotiations, which neither party is currently and may not be for some time, the United States could act as a neutral mediator—rather than a guarantor—of a settlement. In the meantime, President Bush should follow his natural instinct and lie low.