You have to peel away many layers of rhetoric and propaganda to see that Hamas' control of the Palestinian Authority serves the interests of other regional players. With Ismail Haniyeh in power, Israel can continue its unilateral policy in the territories. The rulers of Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who groaned under American pressure for democratization, can relax: The "Bush doctrine" for changing Arab regimes disintegrated with Hamas' election victory. Even Syrian President Bashar Assad, who was almost kicked out of his seat, was saved at the last moment. His secular and despotic regime, with all its shortcomings, suddenly looks preferable to Islamic democracy in Damascus.
Interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert needs Hamas more than any other player. From his point of view, a Hamas government that is weakened, lacks international backing and is hungry for assistance is the best alternative on the Palestinian side. Olmert has a strategy: evacuation of most of the West Bank settlements to save Israel from a demographic disaster to be better prepared, both militarily and politically, for the next conflict with the Palestinians. But he has no time. Before the elections, Olmert spoke about the rest of U.S. President George W. Bush's term, until January 2009, as a "window of opportunity" for carrying out the convergence plan. Bush's term now seems an eternity compared to that of the Olmert government, which is unlikely to survive until then.
Olmert must act quickly and decisively. The right was beaten in the elections, the settlers are still isolated, the level of terror is low. But this situation will not last forever. Therefore, Olmert must not waste time on mock negotiations. If he is required to invest months on useless discussions with PA chair Mahmoud Abbas or another Palestinian straw man, the momentum will be lost, and Israel will be stuck with remote settlements such as Itamar and Yizhar as well as outposts on the hills for an additional period.
Israeli fans of "partner" Abbas propose conducting negotiations with him over a final-status agreement to be completed within a month and brought for a Palestinian referendum. According to this scenario, Hamas will find it difficult to swallow the agreement, and will fall from power. That sounds as good as a science fiction plot. In reality, there is no value to an agreement with Abbas, who is incapable of implementing it in any case. Worse, discussions with him are risky: If the negotiations blow up - for example, due to a dispute over refugees or Jerusalem - Israel will find it difficult to withdraw from the settlements. After all, it is inconceivable that after having failed at the discussion table, territories will be handed over free of charge to the Palestinians. And in that way, the conflict will be perpetuated at its current borders, and the settlements once again will be resuscitated, as they were after the Camp David fiasco.
That is why it is good for Israel that the unfriendly Hamas is in power. Finally, there is a disciplined, hierarchical body on the Palestinian side that can observe a cease-fire - even if it is a fragile and imperfect one - and gradually enforce "one law and one weapon," rather than Fatah's institutionalized anarchy. The quiet understanding that former prime minister Ariel Sharon reached with Hamas, with Abbas' mediation, enabled Israel's withdrawal from Gaza, and is allowing for a normal life in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv today. Under the present conditions, holding fire is more important than publicized meetings and speeches about peace.
Fatah enjoyed international support, which reduced Israel's freedom of operation. Hamas has no such status. Its refusal to recognize Israel, adherence to an extremist ideology and vocal support of last week's terror attack in Tel Aviv assist Israeli public relations. The internal struggle is preoccupying the Palestinians and freeing Israel to deal with its own issues. It is hard to imagine more convenient political conditions for Olmert's convergence plan. If he does not hurry to take advantage of them, he will lose the opportunity and his plan will disappear into thin air.
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