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Hamas: Present Absentee

The Summit at Sharm al-Sheikh

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OUR MIDDLE EASTERN leaders assembled on February 8, 2005 at Sharm al-Sheikh: Ariel Sharon of Israel, Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, King Abdullah of Jordan, and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), the new President of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Missing at the festive occasion – but hovering above it like a specter – was Hamas.

The summit undertook no steps toward a comprehensive agreement. It made do, rather, with creating a calmer atmosphere, so that Israel can quit Gaza according to the "Disengagement Plan." To this end it was necessary to reach a prior agreement with Hamas.

When one speaks of calm, Hamas is the principal factor to worry about. The Islamic militant group has been leading the armed struggle against Israel for the past four years. The Intifada began, we recall, with demonstrations on the outskirts of the cities. These did not cost Israel heavily in human life. Hamas steered the uprising away from that path and into the "strategic model" of suicide actions. An occasional suicide bomber was all that it took to rip asunder the fabric of Israeli life. This initiative caused Fatah as well to escalate the struggle, adopting suicide as a "strategy."

After Sharon first threatened unilateral disengagement in December 2003, Hamas began firing Qassam rockets to "hasten the departure" and dog Israel's tracks. From Sharon's vantage point, therefore, Abu Mazen's ability to reach an "arrangement" with Hamas was a precondition for the summit at Sharm. The sole item on the agenda was the cessation of armed resistance to the Occupation. Before attending, Abu Mazen met with the Hamas leaders. Only after they had committed themselves to a period of calm could the summit take place. The Israeli newspapers, with typical hyperbole, proclaimed an "end to the Intifada."

Likewise, the first place Abu Mazen visited after the summit was Gaza, where he met again with the leaders of Hamas to update them on the details of his private session with Sharon. These meetings, pre- and post-, indicate that Hamas has been transformed into a partner, an indirect one to be sure, but certainly the principal partner in the negotiations on disengagement and mutual security that are now taking place between Israel and the PA. As for Abu Mazen, he is not so much a negotiator as a mediator between the two main warring factions: Israel and Hamas.

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N THAT CASE, one may ask, why don't Israel and Hamas negotiate directly? The answer is that the present arrangement suits both best. In Israel's view, it cannot possibly ally itself with anyone who refuses to see the Middle East through the American prism, or who refuses to accept Israel's strategic superiority. Hamas has a long way to go before it will reach such a point. Until then, it is, in Israel's view, a terrorist organization, with which one must not talk.

Hamas, for its part, draws most of its power from the force of its opposition to Israel and the Occupation. It has no interest, therefore, in recognizing "the Zionist entity," as it would have to do if it entered into direct negotiations. In this standoff, the PA becomes a convenient, agreed-on mediator, and each of the two main players is careful not to break relations with it. Sharon needs a Palestinian partner in order to implement the Disengagement Plan, on which he has staked his political life. Hamas also gains something, because on the one hand it preserves the glowing ember of "resistance," while on the other, nothing stops it from competing with the PA in the internal Palestinian arena.

So, for example, in the elections for ten Palestinian municipal councils that took place in the Gaza Strip on January 27, 2005, Hamas won 77 of the 118 seats, that is, 65%. And now, alongside its opposition to Israel, Hamas has set itself a new objective: to win a central place on the Palestinian Legislative Council in the upcoming summer elections – and without handing over its weapons to the PA.

The big question preoccupying the Israeli government appears to be that of disengagement, but beneath the surface it boils down to this: Must Israel accept the new rules of the game as imposed on it by Hamas? Does progress in disengagement justify, for example, letting Abu Mazen close his eyes in the little matter of disarming the Hamas militias? And more, must Israel too close its eyes to the fact that Hamas is gaining considerable weight in Palestinian politics? After all, Israel has never before had to deal with a situation where Hamas has an official political arm. Not only was Hamas never a member of the PLO, it even opposed it. It boycotted the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council in 1996. This enabled Israel to define Hamas as a terrorist organization tout court. But if Hamas wins a significant share of votes in democratic elections, what then can Israel say?

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SRAEL'S General Security Services (aka Shabak) are not at all happy with the new developments. Their position goes as follows: Was it for this that we fought Hamas for four years? Was it for this that we eliminated its senior leaders, including Sheik Ahmed Yassin and Abed al-Aziz Rentisi? Did we do these things so that Hamas should become the PA's competitor, capable of re-igniting the Intifada if negotiations don't yield big enough fruit?

In fact, the GSS behaves like someone who just hasn't gotten the message, namely, that the reality of the conflict has changed since the death of Yasser Arafat. In the view of the GSS, disengagement ought not to bring about co-existence with Hamas. Rather, it should improve Israel's security, enabling it to win the war against that organization.

Sharon and the army see things differently. To the GSS they reply: "The operation may succeed, but the patient will die." In other words, they might indeed win the military struggle against Hamas, but the price would be the end of Abu Mazen and of the PA as a whole. Israel would then have to impose direct dominion again over the Territories, and this would carry a political and economic (not to say moral) price beyond reckoning.

Israel's army is weary of the Occupation, and the world wants an end to the conflict. These are among the main reasons why Israel feels compelled to swallow the Hamas frog. Only thus can it preserve its last alternative, Abu Mazen, before everyone tumbles into the void.

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ND WHAT ABOUT Abu Mazen himself? Why is he willing to dance to the tune of Hamas? The latter sets stiff demands, after all: Israel must end absolutely the attacks on its members, release all Palestinian prisoners, and withdraw from the entire West Bank. Abu Mazen knows that his standing among Palestinians is far from firm. He is their choice by default, because they know that he is the only figure with whom the US and Israel are willing to talk. In addition, he is the sole figure from the old national leadership that has a chance of filling, at least in part, the vacuum left by Arafat. The Fatah movement is in tatters. It has neither ideology nor strategy. Corrupt private interests have torn it to shreds. It rightly fears a stunning defeat in the upcoming general elections, which may well reveal the bitter truth: four years of Intifada have proved the utter failure of the PA in managing the affairs of the Palestinian people.

After Abu Mazen returned from Sharm al-Sheikh and met with Hamas, the members of Fatah's Central Committee asked to talk with him urgently about the elections. They foresee a major defeat. The gloomy state of Fatah is indicated also by the difficulties faced by Abu Ala, the PA's Prime Minister, in establishing an interim government. Two conflicts are ripping the movement apart: 1) intergenerational strife between the old guard from Tunis, who came with Arafat in 1994, and the younger leaders from inside; 2) tension between old Arafat loyalists and those of Abu Mazen. In the end Abu Ala chose technocrats for his cabinet, which amounts to a decision not to decide. When the PM cannot form a government from among his movement's leaders, because they are so corrupt that the people will not accept them, then the movement has lost its right to exist politically.

In this situation, the subliminal message that Abu Mazen conveys to his people is this: Look, if there's a chance to get anything out of Israel, it'll be when I'm in power. America and Europe stand behind me. If you vote for Hamas, we'll lose even what little we can get from Israel today.

Where do all these signs lead? Precisely to the point where we were at the signing of the Oslo Accords, which ignored the main topics of concern to Palestinians and bred the second Intifada. Israel does not want direct rule over the Palestinian people, but it refuses to grant this people full independence. That is why it gets trapped again and again in a cul de sac. No separation wall, no disengagement from Gaza, and no other chimerical plan will succeed in changing the basic realities, and these will erupt again in violence when the Palestinians realize how little Israel is willing to give.

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