b i t t e r l e m o n s. o r g
    February 13, 2006 Edition 7                       Palestinian-Israeli crossfire
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  Hamas and Israel
. Questions asked of Israel        by Ghassan Khatib
Israeli confusion has only been heightened by Israeli disappointment with the international reaction.
  . We need a coherent strategy        by Yossi Alpher
Let's not fool ourselves: Abu Mazen no longer represents the Palestinian polity we have to coexist with.
. At a crossroads        by Eyad El Sarraj
The Israeli government will be more than happy if Hamas does not change.
  . Israel's political options        by Yossi Beilin
We can agree to any negotiating option that will, at the end of the process, be given authoritative ratification.

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Questions asked of Israel
by Ghassan Khatib

If Israel has been trying systematically to undermine the peace camp in Palestine and prepare the ground for the growing of popularity and increase in credibility of Hamas among Palestinians, it has been stunningly successful. In this sense, Hamas' victory in recent elections can be seen as Israel harvesting what it sowed.

But having been thus successful, Israel's immediate reaction to the election result has reflected confusion. It is not at all clear what Israel now wants from Hamas: whether it is trying to pressure Hamas to change or is taking a principled position that there will be no dealing with Hamas under any circumstance.

This Israeli confusion has only been heightened by Israeli disappointment with the international reaction, which has ranged from the rigid American position of no dealings, whether financial or diplomatic, with a Hamas-led Palestinian government, to the Russian willingness to receive and deal with the Hamas leadership with all the legitimacy that this bestows upon the movement. In between, we have the European approach to set specific conditions for dealing with the next Hamas-supported government in Palestine, reflecting de facto bargaining with Hamas.

In this respect, both Israel and Fateh are going to face contradictions between their respective strategies and the behavior and attitude of prominent members of the international community. Both had based their immediate position and preliminary strategies on the assumption that the international community would not deal with Hamas. That expected boycott would have reinforced the freeze both Fateh and Israel were preparing in their relations with Hamas. But the emergence of different international attitudes is creating debate in these two camps, and reflects again the need for much closer coordination and dialogue between Israel and Fateh on the one hand and the main international actors on the other, before these parties can finalize their positions and strategies.

While the relations, if such they can be called, between Israel and Hamas may seem beyond compromise, the latter has very significant cards to play. It is obvious that the primary concern of Israel is security, and Israel will pay close attention to the behavior of Hamas in this regard. Hamas, which has accepted the principle of a ceasefire or hudna, can easily use this card in return for something such as Israeli acceptance of its survival as the dominant power in the Palestinian Authority. Israel is desperate to eliminate the most effective actor in violent confrontations between Palestinians and Israelis.

Hamas might also be able to embarrass Israel by showing a willingness to make political concessions and compromises. For this, Israel must be willing to answer questions related to Israeli settlement policies and to end the illegal occupation over the 1967 territories.

In other words, the challenge to Israel of Hamas' election victory is much more complicated and serious than can be dealt with simply the way Israel is doing right now, i.e., by asking the world not to deal with the PA, its Legislative Council and government as long as Hamas is the dominant power. Beyond the immediate effect on the ground, such an approach will negatively impact Israeli relations with some of its significant international allies and threaten the comfortable position Israel has been enjoying internationally for a while now.

In preparing its strategy for the post-Palestinian elections era, Israel is now required to be ready to answer questions on the future of its occupation over Palestinian territory and on its share of the responsibility for developments within Palestinian society that led to the radicalization that brought Hamas to power. In simple terms, when Israel closed down any political prospects for Mahmoud Abbas and the peace camp, it left Palestinians with only one alternative: Hamas.- Published 13/2/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is the Palestinian Authority minister of labor, acting minister of planning and has been a political analyst and media contact for many years.

We need a coherent strategy
by Yossi Alpher

The international ramifications of the Hamas drama in Palestine are growing. In many quarters of the West and the Middle East, the Israeli/American/Quartet/NATO/Egypt stand regarding Hamas is increasingly seen as another battle in the same clash of civilizations that pits Denmark against its embassy burners in Damascus and half the world against Iran's nuclear program.

Despite, or perhaps because of these West/Muslim tensions, the international front that initially lined up with Israel in demanding that Hamas recognize it, cease terrorist activity and accept all previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements is beginning to crumble. Russia has invited Hamas to Moscow, with France's support. Turkey and Qatar have offered to mediate between Israel and Hamas. Ostensibly, everyone still adheres to the three demands regarding Hamas' position. But a variety of compromise formulae sponsored by Russia, Egypt, the EU or others cannot be far away.

Under these circumstances, what is Israel to do with respect to the efforts to form a new Palestinian government in the Hamas era? The Palestinians are in no hurry to form that government, while the current Israeli political reality of impending elections and an acting prime minister also make it difficult to develop a coherent strategy in the coming months. But a coherent and rational strategy is what we need, and the sooner we begin formulating it the better. The following elements, some of which have already been mentioned in this column in recent weeks, would appear to be relevant:

On the home front, without interfering in the Palestinian government-formation process or in possible Hamas-Fateh friction, we have to look for ways to encourage and strengthen more moderate elements within Hamas, if indeed they exist (thus far we have only their rhetoric to go by), in the hope that one day we can negotiate with them. A parallel option is to encourage the West Bank, where Fateh is relatively strong, to increasingly detach itself from the Hamas stronghold of Gaza. At the same time, and without prejudice to the many moderate Palestinians who continue to seek a peaceful compromise solution, we should not delude ourselves that serious negotiations are a near-term option.

Nor should we seek to negotiate some sort of side deal with PA President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), whether as head of the PA or the PLO. Let's not fool ourselves: he was probably never able to deliver on a reasonable agreement, and following the Palestinian elections he certainly no longer represents the Palestinian polity we have to coexist with.

In parallel, we have to prepare for the option of far-reaching military action. If Hamas does not genuinely moderate its positions, it remains a radical Islamist movement committed to Israel's destruction, and it is merely a matter of time before it finds an excuse to declare an end to the ceasefire (hudna) and renew aggression against us. Closer Hamas-Iran-Hizballah ties will certainly constitute a danger signal. Alternatively, Hamas will ostensibly maintain the ceasefire, but stand aside as Islamic Jihad and Fateh dissidents, backed by Iran, expand terrorist attacks. In this instance we will have to hold the Hamas government responsible just as we held the previous Fateh-dominated PA government to its security commitments.

Short of the need for a military response, and again assuming Hamas "remains Hamas" and continues to advocate our disappearance, we should proceed with additional unilateral disengagement initiatives on the West Bank with the objective of shortening our lines of defense and improving our demographic prospects. We should remove isolated settlements but, following the northern West Bank model of last August, not turn the territory militarily over to the PA. Nor should the wide open Rafah crossing arrangements be copied at the Allenby Bridge. In other words, in the near future Israel should look after its demographic and security interests without any pretence that it is encouraging and contributing to a stable two-state solution with an ultimately reliable partner, and without in any way harming the security interests of Egypt and especially Jordan, where Hamas is liable to seek to expand its influence.

On the international front, we're going to be fighting a rearguard battle to prevent Russia, the EU and the UN from doing deals with Hamas that guarantee a measure of short-term tranquility at Israel's expense. More and more international actors will talk to Hamas, whether we like it or not. We shall have to temper our protests with realism. Luckily, the US is far less tempted to compromise, but that doesn't exempt us from confrontation with Washington: President Bush must be persuaded to reformulate his democratic reform program for the Arab Middle East so that it emphasizes developing civil society infrastructure rather than holding elections that enfranchise armed Islamist factions.

The sooner Israel has a coherent and rational strategy for dealing with all aspects of Hamas' rise to power, the more capable we shall be in the near term of maintaining our own vital interests--a secure, Jewish and democratic state that seeks a compromise peace with Palestine--as well as contributing to those of our moderate friends and neighbors.- Published 13/2/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Alpher is coeditor of bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org. He is a former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and a former senior adviser to PM Ehud Barak.

At a crossroads
by Eyad El Sarraj

The recent parliamentary elections in Palestine were the equivalent of a political earthquake. It is an earthquake that brings with it the possibility of dramatic change in the Middle East and beyond. The elections represented the first time in history that an Islamic movement came to power in the Arab world through peaceful and clean democratic elections. It is important, however, to note that religion itself played only a small role in the vote, no more, in my opinion, than 15 percent. The bulk of the vote was a protest against Fateh for its dismal record on all fronts and a defiant message against the Israeli occupation and American policies.

Hamas now is challenged by its history to face the future. I believe it has some smart people who will help it climb down the tree, because if Hamas succeeds in running the country and negotiating peace, the next ten years will see the Arab world ruled by Islamic governments. Hamas is currently agonizing over the issue of recognizing Israel and renouncing violence, but I think it will do so with time. This is a historical moment for the Islamic movement and an opportunity it won't want to miss. Hamas leaders have already declared that they will respect all previous agreements between Israel and the PA, and Mahmoud Zahhar, in recent days, further said that America is "not our enemy and she holds the key to peace in the Middle East."

The question now is how others react. Fateh is finding it all very difficult to swallow, from the president on down. However, it is important that there is a serious internal dialogue with Hamas and that the vote of the people is respected. Even if the vote gave people the opportunity to punish Fateh, Fateh should not punish people by letting Hamas run aground.

The Israeli government will be more than happy if Hamas does not change. Israel already started on a unilateral course under Ariel Sharon. Should Hamas show no inclination to change, it will be all the justification Israel needs to stave off any (muted) international pressure to negotiate and instead continue what Sharon started, grabbing whatever land it wants and giving nothing to the Palestinians, who in any case are not considered by Israel as partners for peace.

The declared Hamas positions of not recognizing Israel and refusing to surrender arms play well in the hearts and minds of the masses, who believe that Israel should first recognize Palestinian rights and end the occupation of Palestinian and Arab land. But Hamas would be well advised to declare its commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002, which calls for mutual recognition of Israel and full relations conditioned on Israeli withdrawal from all occupied Arab land. Hamas could also form a cabinet of technocrats and give President Mahmoud Abbas the mandate to conduct foreign policy while Hamas restructures and rehabilitates the Palestinian Authority.

Israel, for its part, stands at a crossroads. Israel has never taken Palestinian rights seriously, let alone been willing to accede to them. The ascendancy of Hamas represents a chance for Israel, but, and this goes for whoever sits at the helm of the Palestinian polity, Israel will never achieve peace without recognizing that Palestinians have rights that must be fulfilled. Hamas' victory represents the ultimate proof. If it were not for the Israeli occupation there would be no Hamas and no armed resistance.- Published 13/2/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Dr. Eyad El Sarraj is head of the Gaza Community Mental Health Project and a frequent commentator on Palestinian-Israeli affairs.

Israel's political options
by Yossi Beilin

Hamas' victory in the democratic elections held in the Palestinian Authority is bad news for the Palestinians and bad news for Israel. From the Palestinian standpoint, an extremist religious organization is liable to turn the daily lives of the non-religious public into a living hell. From Israel's standpoint this is an organization that is not prepared to recognize it, negotiate with it or make peace with it. Many of us warned that if Israel weakens the Palestinian Authority and its infrastructure and expresses contempt for its leader--we would end up with Hamas. Nor can there be any doubt that the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza strengthened Hamas.

Now that it has happened, what do we do? How do we take advantage of the more positive aspects of this event?

Hamas has displayed greater self control than Fateh. This is an actor capable of making decisions and implementing them. On the other hand Abu Mazen (President Mahmoud Abbas), who found himself in a near impossible situation prior to the elections, has become indispensable: he is the only leader acceptable to Fateh; Hamas doesn't want him to resign because of his international stature; Israel considers him a partner; and so does the world. The "chick without feathers", as Ariel Sharon called him, is being courted by everyone; right now he can dictate conditions for agreeing to remain in office. Meanwhile, Fateh has received a ringing slap in the face that should jolt it out of its current situation and oblige the Palestinian secular-pragmatic camp to regroup and get back on its feet.

Israel's unilateral withdrawal option appears, for the time being, more distant than ever. Such a withdrawal is precisely what Hamas wants--Israel disengages from territories in the West Bank against the backdrop of the Hamas victory and delivers up these lands to Hamas rule without the Islamist movement making the slightest concession and without it recognizing Israel. Only in the absence of a negotiated end-of-conflict agreement does this become the fallback option for anyone who believes that it is imperative--from the standpoint of Israel's national interest--to end the occupation and partition the land in the course of the next Knesset term.

Is Hamas, then, likely to become a partner? Theoretically, and perhaps not only theoretically, the answer is yes. Even if it is hard to imagine right now, it is Israel's obligation to present Hamas with conditions and demand that it fulfill them in order to open peace negotiations. The act of talking to Hamas should not, in my view, be dependent on conditions, but negotiations must be conditioned on Hamas recognizing Israel and abandoning terrorism. If it meets these conditions there is no reason not to try and reach agreement with its representatives.

Hamas may not wish to undertake such negotiations itself, but may not prevent others from doing so either. It may be convenient for Hamas to set up a political screen between itself and Israel and the world (for example, by establishing a technocrat government with its support but without its participation). Under these circumstances, Israel could continue to hold peace negotiations (which ended at Taba in January 2001) with the PLO or with a negotiating team appointed by PA President Abu Mazen, on condition that Hamas agree from the start that the product of the negotiations be brought to a Palestinian referendum, and that it would accept the outcome.

The PLO, after all, is the only partner Israel has negotiated with since the Oslo track began. I remember well the last crisis prior to the signing of the September 13, 1993 Declaration of Principles, when it was still described as an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian delegation to Washington and Yasser Arafat threatened to go back to Tunis unless the header was changed to an agreement with the PLO. Alternatively, Abu Mazen might prefer to reestablish the presidential negotiating committee and hold talks with us as both president of the PA and chairman of the PLO. We can agree to any option that will, at the end of the process, be given authoritative ratification.

It is too early to make a definitive determination. As long as a coalition among the rational forces in the region is possible, we have to develop options and examine all the practical possibilities.- Published 13/2/2006 © bitterlemons.org

Yossi Beilin is chair of the Meretz-Yahad party.

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