Quiet… elections

All indications point to a readiness on the part of Hamas to continue to respect the current ceasefire (which technically ended January 1) at least until Palestinian national elections on January 25, and even if the organization’s revolutionary credentials require that it declare otherwise. Hamas is set to claim for itself a major portion of the Palestinian pie in these elections, and renewed violence could spoil that achievement, either by causing cancellation of the elections or by losing votes.

Israel, too, has an interest in maintaining relative quiet, all the way through its own elections at the end of March. Provocations by Islamic Jihad and various Fateh-related gangs in Gaza and the West Bank, and by Hizballah–or the PFLP, or al-Qaeda, no one seems to be sure–along Israel’s northern border certainly justify a vigorous response. A perception among Israel’s neighbors that Israeli PM Ariel Sharon’s health problems reflect weakness may be one factor that explains the provocations.

But Israel does not wish to be perceived as interfering militarily with Palestinian elections, and experience has taught Sharon that extensive military activity prior to an Israeli election can backfire on the government in power (though Sharon also needs to point to the high profile of security matters on Israel’s agenda in order to counter Labor leader Amir Peretz’s focus on poverty and socio-economic issues). On balance, and barring a major terrorist blow against Israel, its relative restraint will probably hold at least until after its own elections.

And what happens then? Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has reportedly appointed a policy team, headed by his trusted adviser Dov Weisglass, to examine Israel’s options for dealing with the PA/PLO after Palestinian elections, based on the assumption that Hamas will either win them or achieve decisive influence over Palestinian national decision-making, and that it will persevere in refusing to dismantle its armed infrastructure. As matters currently stand, the team would appear to confront no fewer than five options.

One is to refuse to negotiate with a Palestinian leadership that includes Hamas, precisely because Hamas remains a terrorist organization that rejects Israel’s right to exist. Israel would be fully within its rights to take this position, which is currently supported by the entire Zionist political spectrum from the settlers on the religious right to Yossi Beilin on the left. The problem is that this is not a policy but a recipe for political stalemate, and the outcome could be a major outbreak of armed violence.

A second option is to offer to negotiate roadmap-related or other issues with the PLO/PA no matter who leads it. Assuming Sharon heads the next government, and allowing for possible international pressure to avoid a dangerous stalemate, he would presumably proffer pre-conditions that would make it impossible in practical terms to negotiate: from a cessation of Palestinian violence to Hamas’ acquiescence in the Israeli interpretation of the roadmap. This position would in fact be little different from the current official Israeli stance, except that it would risk sinking into a kind of IRA scenario, whereby Hamas is designated Israel’s negotiating partner while still maintaining its campaign of terrorism. Certainly this position would be unsupportable for Israel over time without some additional initiative.

That initiative could be a second disengagement. That is what everyone is expecting Sharon to opt for anyway, and the familiar refrain "there is no one to talk to on the other side" would be far more supportable internationally when invoked vis-a-vis Hamas than Abu Mazen.

A fourth option–one not mutually exclusive with the others–is for Sharon to begin his next term in office with a major military offensive, against Hizballah in the north and Palestinian terrorist units in the West Bank and Gaza. This presumes that armed provocations against Israel by Islamic Jihad and others continue throughout the two elections and that Israeli strategic thinkers reckon it is time to restore the dimension of deterrence lost by Israeli restraint at election time. But would Hamas targets be attacked if Hamas continues to observe the ceasefire? Probably not.

A final, and intriguing possibility, would be for some form of negotiations with Hamas to evolve based on the one apparent common denominator it shares with Sharon: they both reject an "end of conflict" final status agreement and both express a readiness to discuss an interim arrangement. Hamas’ stance is based on its unwillingness, as an Islamist movement, to officially condone a non-Muslim state on the Muslim holy land of Palestine. Sharon has declared repeatedly that he doesn’t believe Israel’s Arab neighbors are capable of genuine peace–a very problematic position except when applied to the likes of Hamas.

Could Israel and Hamas negotiate something short of peace that nevertheless creates a viable Palestinian state and leaves Israel with defensible and recognized borders? It’s doubtful given the huge gaps separating even their "interim" positions on refugees, borders and Jerusalem, though not beyond the realm of possibility. Certainly, if Hamas wins these elections and continues to maintain a ceasefire, it and the state of Israel will not be able to ignore one another for long.