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What Now?

Questions emerge on Hamas' rise to power and what it means for Israel.

by Leslie Susser

February 2, 2006 | 7:00 pm

When the militant group Hamas swept to victory in last week's Palestinian elections, it forced all key players to reassess their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creating widespread uncertainty about the future. A number of fundamental questions have emerged:

Will Hamas in its power role moderate its radical positions or put Palestinian society on a collision course with Israel and the Western world?

This is the central question. There will be enormous pressure on Hamas to adopt a more pragmatic line. The European Union, which provides up to 90 percent of international aid to the Palestinians, is threatening to suspend its economic support unless Hamas recognizes Israel's right to exist and renounces violence, and the United States appears poised to do the same.

In the short term, cutting off these funds could leave a Hamas government unable to pay the salaries of 155,000 Palestinian civil servants, including the 30,000-strong Palestinian Authority security forces. In the longer term, ambitious plans to jump-start the stalled Palestinian economy may have to be shelved, perpetuating poverty and unemployment.

A militant Hamas also will face international isolation, giving Israel the moral and diplomatic high ground for tough responses to Palestinian terror.

Israel will be able to exert tremendous diplomatic, economic and military pressure. On the diplomatic front, it won't talk to Hamas in its present form; as to the economy, the Palestinians are dependent on Israel for electricity, the transfer of tax revenue, goods, services, work places and border crossings. In addition, if terrorism escalates, Hamas leaders could become targets.

Therefore, while it won an outright majority of 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas wants the defeated Fatah movement to stay on in government to give it a semblance of respectability vis-a-vis Israel and the international community.

Still, Hamas for now probably will refuse to moderate its ideology, which calls for Israel's destruction. Indeed, there are strong opposing pressures on Hamas to maintain its radical line.

Iran, for example, could make up for some funds the European Union withholds -- on condition that Hamas remain militant. Fidelity to its ideology and goading by other militant groups also could shunt Hamas away from moderation.

Does the Hamas victory mean the end of the dynamic toward independent Israeli and Palestinian states living side-by-side?

Not necessarily. By its very participation in the election, Hamas has been sucked into the two-state paradigm: The Palestinian Parliament holds sway in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but not over all the territory -- including Israel -- that Hamas claims as "Palestine."

More imminently, the Hamas victory likely will accelerate unilateral Israeli moves to establish a clear border between Israelis and Israeli settlements on one side and Palestinians on the other.

Is Hamas uniformly radical or are there more moderate voices?

The organization's formal position is that there can be no talks with Israel until it withdraws to its pre-1967 boundaries, divides Jerusalem and takes in vast numbers of Palestinian refugees, positions that are unacceptable to Israel. Until then, Hamas says, all contacts will be through third parties.

Behind the scenes, however, some Hamas leaders are intimating that there could be direct negotiations before then. On this score, and in general, Ismail Haniya, Hamas' foremost candidate for prime minister, is thought to be more pragmatic than the Gaza-based party leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar.

How is the secular Fatah movement likely to respond to its loss of power?

Fatah, the movement founded by Yasser Arafat, has dominated the Palestinian nationalist movement since its inception 40 years ago. Its loss of power to the Islamic fundamentalists came as a profound shock. Fatah leaders' initial reaction was to dismiss out-of-hand Hamas calls to participate in a national unity government on the grounds that Fatah plans to rebuild in opposition and return to power once Hamas' approach proves unrealistic.

Fatah says it intends to hand over power peacefully, but already there has been some fighting between the two groups and some talk of using force to reverse the election result, the way the army did when Islamists were poised to win power in Algeria in 1992. A key development to watch will be whether P.A. security personnel loyal to Fatah agree to place themselves under Hamas command.

What are the likely regional consequences?

For Israel, one of the most dangerous results would be a growth of Iranian influence in the Palestinian arena. Hawks like the Likud Party's Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, see a tightening of an Iranian-controlled terrorist belt around Israel, with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah to the north and Hamas and other Palestinian militants in the center and south.

A lot will depend on the choice Hamas makes between Iran and the rest of the international community.

Will Hamas continue the cease-fire, or tahdia, that most Palestinian terrorist groups declared in early 2005 or will there soon be a fresh outbreak of terrorism?

The Israeli intelligence assessment is that Hamas will observe the cease-fire, at least in the short term. What happens next will depend on the long-term strategy that Hamas, with all the constraints of power, decides to adopt.

As for terrorist acts by other militants, such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, with its radical ideology, will be in no position to condemn them.

Some Israelis are saying the advent of Hamas will make it easier for Israel to cope. There will be no more masks or double talk, analysts say, such as when the Palestinian Authority condemned terror to the outside world but did nothing to stop it. With Hamas in power, they add, Israelis are likely to be more united in fighting terrorism and to get more international support for counterterrorist activities.

What are Israel's options?

Government policy is shaping up as the following: No talks with Hamas, insistence on the "road map" peace plan's demands for a renunciation of terrorism and disarming of militias, consideration of further unilateral withdrawals, rapid completion of the West Bank security fence, targeting of the Islamic Jihad militia and carrot-and-stick use of Israel's economic leverage.

The government's initial dilemma was whether to leave open lines of communication to Hamas and transfer some $43 million in value-added tax collected by Israel for the Palestinian Authority or to set clear conditions for dialogue and transfers of funds.

After a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that the government would not hold peace talks with Hamas until it recognized Israel, renounced terrorism and accepted previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel also would refuse to hand tax money to the Palestinians until it was clear where the money was going, he said.

"We have no intention of transferring funds that will be used for terrorism," Olmert declared.

Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke to an array of world leaders on the phone, urging them to withhold funds and refuse to meet Hamas officials unless the organization met Israel's minimum conditions.

Visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of the first major world leaders to give the Israeli position her unqualified support. After meeting Olmert in Jerusalem on Sunday, she endorsed the three Israeli conditions: "If Hamas does not change, it would be unthinkable for the EU or for Germany bilaterally to support the P.A. government with money, as we do today," she told waiting reporters.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels echoed her position. There would be no dealing with Hamas unless the organization recognized Israel and renounced terrorism, they said. In the United States, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States also will boycott Hamas as long as it remains committed to Israel's destruction.

What impact is the rise of Hamas likely to have on Israeli elections?

All the main parties are trying to make political capital of the Hamas victory in the run-up to Israel's own elections in March. Likud argues that last summer's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank showed the Palestinians that terrorism pays, and the fact that Hamas could claim that its militiamen forced Israel to leave paved the way for its election success.

On the left, Labor and Meretz claim that the Sharon government weakened Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah by ignoring them as potential peace partners, which they say contributed to Hamas' rise.

The main argument now, though, is likely to be between the unilateralism advocated by Kadima and Labor and the Likud's tougher approach. In elections of the recent past, Likud's use of scare tactics and projection of strength in the face of perceived threats has been very effective.

Despite the rise of Hamas, however, Likud may find it difficult this time to dent Kadima's lead in the polls. The governing party's message regarding the advantages of unilateral action -- the idea that Israel has the power to shape a new reality that's best for it, regardless of who holds power on the Palestinian side -- seems at least as valid now as when Fatah was in charge.

 

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