More questions than answers

Here is a preliminary guide for the perplexed observer of recent days’ “hudna” events in Israel/Palestine. So preliminary that it offers more questions than answers.

First, the seemingly answerable questions:

Who won? At this very early juncture it looks like just about everybody gains. The United States exercised effective pressure to produce a concrete achievement within the framework of its roadmap. Egypt scored points with the US and the Arab world by mediating among Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon can declare victory and argue that his tough military policies brought Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to the fore and Hamas to its knees. But Hamas now has a senior political role to play above and beyond the Palestinian Authority, and its popularity has soared. The Palestinian Authority/Palestine Liberation Organization is delivering on a ceasefire and improved conditions. Abbas and Yasir Arafat can both claim the victory. The Israeli and Palestinian peoples may now enjoy a respite from the violence.

How many agreements are there? Three. An agreement by Hamas and Islamic Jihad regarding conditions for negotiating a ceasefire (hudna) with Israel, a similar but separate agreement by Fateh, and the Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire itself. The first two were brokered by Egypt, the third by the US. Of critical importance is the fact that the contents of the agreements, i.e., the quid pro quos that each demands of Israel, are not identical (see below).

Are we better off today compared, say, to three years ago, when the peace process was ostensibly flourishing and before the violence began? Yes, in the sense that the Palestinian leadership is being cleaned up and the US and Israel are enforcing far tougher rules regarding terrorism. No, in the sense that the Palestinian leadership is far weaker and the two sides are farther apart both on issues of substance and in terms of mutual trust.

Do Israel and the PLO see eye to eye on the “philosophy” of this ceasefire? No. The Palestinians want to return to the status quo ante pre-intifada: use of persuasion rather than force against Hamas in order to avoid civil war (which is why their internal agreements had to precede the ceasefire with Israel), joint patrols with Israel, release of all prisoners, and the same agenda for peace negotiations, including the right of return. Israel–and here Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon speaks for most Israelis (and Americans)–wants Hamas to be dismantled, not co-opted, views security cooperation more in terms of separation than integration, and will adopt tougher positions on some final status issues, if and when we get to them.

Now, the questions that have no immediate answers:

Who’s in charge on the Palestinian side: Hamas, now the most popular organization? Arafat (and the jailed Mustafa Barghouti), who claim credit for negotiating the intra-Palestinian hudna? Abu Mazen and his security chief, Mohammad Dahlan, who negotiated the ceasefire with Israel?

Can the Islamist organizations that reject Israel’s existence, and the PLO/PA, coexist under a joint political agreement and a hudna and manage their affairs with Israel? Or must the PLO/PA subdue Hamas first? Can Dahlan deal effectively with the inevitable infractions by Hamas and Fateh dissidents? Can and will he engage in the “dismantlement of terrorist capabilities and infrastructure” as the roadmap requires him to do? Are Hamas’ far-reaching demands on Israel (within the intra-Palestinian agreement), e.g., to release all prisoners and lift the siege of Arafat’s compound, bound to generate renewed fighting after three months, given that Israel has (understandably concerning the prisoners) rejected them? If so, why should Israel wait and allow the militants to rearm and reorganize?

Will Sharon, the Israeli right and some in the security establishment indeed preempt? Or will they take measured risks and tolerate initial Palestinian infractions, in the interests of allowing Dahlan to operate and strengthen his position? Up to what point can they accept that an imperfect peace is better than a fruitless Palestinian civil war? And will they take “all necessary steps to help normalize Palestinian life” as the roadmap demands?

What will Sharon do if the agreement collapses? More of the same, or reoccupy Gaza and seek to physically eliminate the Hamas leadership? How will this affect the already shaky status of Abu Mazen, the first Palestinian leader to unequivocally condemn terrorism and Palestinian violence? Will the US restrain Sharon, or will he revert to form and not know when to stop?

Finally, how will the US, which pulled this off, balance the clearly defined need to eliminate Hamas and the other militant terrorist organizations with the desire to use the ceasefire as a foundation for a renewed peace process? How far into the maelstrom of Israeli-Palestinian relations is President Bush prepared to be drawn? How will the White House react when the going gets rough?

And where is the senior presidential emissary that both sides need to “babysit” them in between visits from Secretary of State Powell and National Security Adviser Rice?

Yossi Alpher is the author of the forthcoming book “And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians.”

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