President George W. Bush, who came to jump-start the peace talks, is fading in the distance, and the large-scale military action in Gaza is getting closer. It is as if there are two peoples: The people of the West Bank and the people of Gaza. With the first we make peace and with the second we go to war.
There are even those who "know" that the president of the West Bank, Mahmoud Abbas, "begged" Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to go all-out against Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh's state. They propose bringing back Fatah people to rule Gaza, riding in Israel Defense Forces tanks, and hope that Abbas' police will protect the children of Sderot. It is hard to tell which possibility is worse - that these advisors believe what they say, or that they have decided to eradicate the last Palestinian.
A large-scale Israeli military operation against Hamas in the Gaza Strip will not only not strengthen Abbas' status in the territories; it will fatally damage him and might even bring about a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. The pictures of the dead and wounded Palestinians in the Strip will thwart the shred of a chance that Fatah will keep its pledges in security matters not only in Gaza, but in the West Bank, as per the first stage of the Road Map.
To the Palestinian public, Fatah will become a South Lebanese Army clone, and its supporters in Gaza will be forced to ally themselves with Hamas for protection. The strengthening of Hamas will deepen the influence of Iran and Hezbollah in the territories. The Annapolis process will collapse and with it Abbas and the two-state solution. Lacking a central government in Gaza, the IDF will become bogged down there and bear responsibility for the humanitarian disaster that is already taking place.
Hamas is showing increasing interest in lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip and is reiterating its proposal to declare a cease-fire. Such messages reveal pressure from the population in the Strip, which is not enjoying Hamas policies, to put it mildly.
However, Israel should not be lured into temporary agreements with Hamas that will perpetuate its hold over a large part of the territories. If Olmert really sees Abbas as a partner for a peace agreement and wants to strengthen his position, he must also see Abbas as the address for the end of the violent conflict and for easing the economic distress in the Strip. Israel must not hand Hamas the achievement of a massive prisoner release in exchange for Gilad Shalit. Marwan Barghouti and hundreds of Fatah and Hamas prisoners, with or without blood on their hands, should be handed over to Abbas.
These are all essential conditions, but they are not enough. A cease-fire in Gaza, without progress in talks on the core issues, will become a pause in the uprising against the occupation and will augment support for Hamas. A failure and even a freeze of the talks will illustrate to the inhabitants of the territories the powerlessness of the pragmatic camp, which hangs its hopes on the diplomatic path, as opposed to the success of organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah to rankle the Israelis by violent means. Significant diplomatic progress, accompanied by the easing of restrictions on the ground will make damage control possible in regional and international channels. A positive atmosphere around the negotiating table will be a convenient context for discussions of an initiative to replace the IDF in Gaza with an international force.
Israel has come across the chance to prove to the residents of the territories that their choice of Hamas was a mistake, and to announce that it is prepared to sign an agreement with Abbas that includes a cease-fire and the opening of the Gaza Strip crossings. That will, of course, require restraint from the IDF and close supervision by the government over the army. If Hamas refuses the cease-fire, it will be the one that bears responsibility for the continued siege and IDF actions in Gaza. The organization will not disappear as a result, but it will be politically weakened in the mind of the Palestinian public.
The prime minister determined that without dividing the country, "Israel is finished." Thus the strengthening of the Palestinian partner to the two-state solution is in Israel's existential interest. Before he decides to undertake an extensive military operation in Gaza, to free Hamas prisoners, surrender to Avigdor Lieberman or give in to the settlers, the prime minister must ask himself whether it is best for the Jews, or whether it will harm the essential partner essential for the existence of their state. We must safeguard Abbas.
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