May will be crucial

The past ten days or so have witnessed a flurry of both diplomatic and military activity touching on Israel-Hamas relations. Drawing on Hamas concessions, Egypt appears to have made progress toward instituting a six-month pause or ceasefire between Hamas and Israel in and around the Gaza Strip. Meetings in Egypt and Syria between former US president Jimmy Carter and Hamas leaders added a measure of controversy. Meanwhile Hamas has continued to target the Gaza-Israel passages through which vital infrastructure and food supplies are delivered to Gaza.

There are still major unresolved issues in the ceasefire talks. Israel insists Hamas commit to preventing any and all aggression from Gaza, including by Islamic Jihad and other non-Hamas combatants. Hamas wants the passages (the very ones it attacks) opened and the economic boycott ended. It has apparently withdrawn its demand that the ceasefire be applied immediately to the West Bank as well as the Gaza Strip, but insists that after six months of quiet Israel accept this condition as well.

In judging the pros and cons of the Gaza ceasefire package, the Olmert government has to address a number of broad issues touching on Israel’s relationship with Gaza and Hamas.

First, the real significance of the Carter talks and the initiative taken by Shas Minister of Trade, Tourism and Industry Eli Yishai to directly discuss a prisoner exchange with Hamas leader Khaled Mishaal (which Mishaal rejected) is to signal a degree of erosion in the overall boycott of Hamas by Israel and the Quartet. We can expect to see additional international personalities meeting with senior Hamas leaders and a greater likelihood of some sort of preliminary diplomatic contacts with Hamas. Carter is seen by most Israelis as naive and willfully ignorant of their security needs. But the one statement he made on this trip that resonated with them was that someone has to talk to their enemies.

Second, Hamas’ capacity to deal positively with Israel is weakened by what appear to be serious schisms within the movement’s leadership. Mishaal’s refusal to meet with Yishai was consistent with Hamas’ general rejection of meetings with Israelis and further hurt Mishaal’s image as a leader Israel could conceivably do business with.

Third, Israel’s abstention from a strong reaction to Hamas’s abortive Pesach-day attack on the Kerem Shalom crossing reflected not only a desire to maintain a degree of tranquility over the Pesach holiday. Sixtieth independence day celebrations, a visit by US President George W. Bush and the fragility of the Israel-PLO peace process are additional factors mitigating against military escalation in Gaza. But by late May only the peace process constraint will be left, and the likelihood of a major Israeli incursion into Gaza will increase proportionately. Hamas is aware of this. Fear of a major Israeli offensive may explain why it has apparently dropped its demand that a short-term ceasefire prohibit IDF operations in the West Bank as well as Gaza.

Fourth, judging by Hamas’ persistent attacks on the Israel-Gaza passages and the tightening of Israel’s economic siege that they are seemingly intended to provoke, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the "victim" image of impoverished Palestinians in Gaza serves Hamas’ overall strategic objective. Israel should take note. In any event, it should long ago have concluded that depriving ordinary Gazans of essential infrastructure and food supplies is counter-productive to its interests.

Finally, a ceasefire should facilitate Cairo’s efforts to broker an Israel-Hamas prisoner exchange that repatriates IDF soldier Gilad Shalit.

But the Israel-Gaza ceasefire initiative presents Jerusalem with a set of broader regional considerations as well. For one, a Gaza ceasefire (or, for that matter, a military escalation) will affect the status of the Israel-PLO peace talks in general and the status of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in particular. The latter has just walked away from a White House meeting where he declared he had failed to persuade President Bush to pressure Israel for concessions. That meeting was symptomatic of the relative absence of an effective American imprint on the current course of Israel’s relations with the Palestinians, whether PLO or Hamas.

Most Palestinians and Israelis are united in arguing that the peace talks are going nowhere. A Gaza ceasefire could free the hand of PM Ehud Olmert to start removing West Bank outposts and advancing the talks. But alternatively, the ceasefire could boost Hamas’ prestige in the West Bank as well as Gaza, thereby further weakening Abbas. Into these calculations we must factor the prospect that Hamas will agree to the Gaza passages being reopened under the auspices of the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority.

Then too, Hamas in Gaza has over the past year or so become a major factor in Israeli-Egyptian relations. Cairo, in the twilight of the Mubarak regime, is wary of the link between Hamas and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, but fears becoming over-involved in Gaza and has for years been trying to facilitate Hamas-PLO relations. Hamas’ violent breach of the Rafah crossing a few months ago represented a low-point in the Egypt-Hamas relationship. An Egyptian-mediated ceasefire between Israel and Hamas could improve those relations and at least temporarily stabilize the region.

The clock is ticking on the Israel-Hamas status quo of low-level warfare. The next month should produce either a ceasefire or an Israeli-initiated escalation. Either one could further weaken Abbas and the peace process–unless Olmert gets serious about settlements and outposts in the West Bank.