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In the Muqata, they're already thinking of Thursday, the day after the most crucial political campaign the Palestinians have known since the handshake between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin in September 1993. The question that is on everyone's minds is what will happen if Hamas does not make do with the 45 or 50 percent of the vote it is predicted to receive in the elections for the Palestine Legislative Council. What will they do if the party that declared war on the Oslo accords will want to get a foot in the door of the Palestinian Authority government - a government that was established by virtue of these accords?

Some are saying that if you can't beat Hamas, then join 'em, by bringing them into the government. Others, led by Mohammed Dahlan, are not even willing to listen to any talk about dividing up the pie, or more correctly the cookie, with the Islamists. In Fatah, as in the Baath party, the oligarchy is connected to the government by a solid glue of interests.

Co-option of Hamas into the executive authority could perhaps domesticate the Rottweiler. Who knows, maybe life from the government offices will look different when it does from the mosques? The greater their electoral achievement, the greater the responsibility on their shoulders for the peace and well-being of a larger constituency. But the Americans didn't leave Abu Mazen any room for doubt; he now understands that bringing Hamas into the government would be the final nail in the coffin of the road map. Abu Mazen's advisors listened with great interest to Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's remarks about his willingness to renew permanent status negotiations. They fully realize that a coalition with Hamas would free him from this commitment.

Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni knows by heart Article III of the Oslo Interim Agreement ("Oslo 2"), which states that political parties or individual candidates that "commit or advocate racism" or "pursue the implementation of their aims by unlawful or undemocratic means" must be banned. Last summer, when British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw visited Israel, Livni requested that Europe insist that Abu Mazen fulfill this section of the agreement. U.S. President George W. Bush forced Sharon to accept Hamas' participation in elections to the legislative council. But there is a very long way between that step and maintaining a relationship with a government that includes a party defined by American law as a "terror organization." Nor will the Europeans be standing in line to meet with minister Mahmoud al-Zahar. Basically, Hamas already has a representative in the government - the minister of national economy, Mazen Sinnukrot, a businessman from Ramallah, is absolutely identified with Hamas. Sinnukrot entered the Abu Mazen cabinet as an "independent," which enabled him to circumvent the Israeli and American boycott on Hamas. This sort of mislabeling will also help the Palestinian Authority get around the Israeli law, which bans Hamas from taking part in elections in Jerusalem. But when the party's candidates are elected and they begin an all-out charge at the cabinet, it might be difficult to repeat this wily stratagem.

Abu Mazen is relying on the honey trap scenario: he assumes that once Hamas tastes the morsels of government, he might exact from it a high price in exchange. The price would be its signature on a declaration of loyalty to the principles of the Palestinian Authority - one law, one government, one army. If they want to, they will enjoy the fruits of government; if they don't want to, no fruits and no enjoyment.

Unilateral engagement

The most widespread Hamas election campaign poster reminds the voting public that "Five years of resistance proved stronger than ten years of negotiations." Nevertheless, numerous poll s show that despite the rise in support for Hamas and the broad consensus in the Palestinian public that it was violence that eventually led to the disengagement plan, most Palestinians still prefer the diplomatic option.

Fatah's campaign posters offer a portrait of Yasser Arafat alongside a picture of Marwan Barghouti waving his handcuffed hands. Abu Mazen is scrupulous about upholding a law that requires the chairman to maintain neutrality throughout the election campaign. He has turned down numerous offers to be photographed in the company of well-known Western public figures. In any case, quite a few candidates on the Fatah list feel that a picture together with Abu Mazen would not help them, and might even hurt.

One aide to Abu Mazen wants to believe that everything will look different after the elections in the territories and before the elections in Israel. He assumes that the results of the elections will illustrate to Israel and the Americans the full implications of replacing the Rabin heritage with the Sharon heritage. It would throw the hot potato of Islamic fundamentalism at the doorstep of Jerusalem and Washington, and place two options before them. One - a letter of resignation, dismantling of the Palestinian Authority, a farewell to Oslo, declaration of an Islamic state in Gaza and a takeover of Nablus by street gangs. In short, "Let me die with the Palestinians!"

The second option, which is being seriously weighed in the chairman's inner circle, is a package deal: immediate resumption of the diplomatic process (according to one proposal, on the basis of either the Clinton outline or the Geneva Initiative), massive economic and security aid to the Palestinian Authority, wide-ranging governmental reform and disarming of armed non-governmental organizations. In other words, a resurrection of the Oslo process.

Abu Mazen also has the option of declaring a state of emergency the day after the election, invalidating the results of the election and declaring new elections within six months. During this interval, the new government in Israel, and its American ally, would be compelled to choose between the two options.

"We are not talking about a choice between two parties, or even between two approaches," explains this same aide. "Israel would have to decide soon if it prefers a secular government turned to the West and to enlightenment, or a neighbor that looks to the East, and whose reference group is the Islamic states."

Sharon's stubborn refusal to throw even a small bone to Abu Mazen in the form of coordination of the Israeli pullback from the Gaza Strip dispelled any illusions among the more pragmatic circles in the territories that the situation of the Palestinians was of any great concern to the prime minister. Fatah leaders had a hard time believing that a sly and experienced politician like Sharon could not understand that the unilateral policy was turning them into a bunch of irrelevant political operators. The tightening of the closures, the renewal of the targeted assassinations, and the decision to prohibit the participation of the East Jerusalem residents in the elections bolstered their suspicion that Sharon was in fact interested in strengthening Hamas, the ultimate non-partner in any realistic negotiations. With the Islamic zealots, there is really no reason to talk about settlement blocs and exchange of territory, or about special arrangements on the Temple Mount or a solution to the refugee problem that would not include the right of return.

Nevertheless, the execution of the pullback from the Gaza Strip proved to the Palestinians that if Sharon is determined to push a process ahead, nothing can stop him. Afterward, in the negotiations on the border crossings, they saw how he manhandled Shaul Mofaz, that big macho man, and arm-wrestled Amos Gilad, the man Palestinians love to hate, until Gilad signed the agreement. They fear that new recruit Olmert's strength will not measure up to that of the generals.

Record support for peace

"Palestinian willingness to compromise is greater than it has been at any time since the start of the peace process," states Dr. Khalil Shikaki in an extensive study based on dozens of polls held among residents of the territories over the past decade. Shikaki, from Ramallah, is considered the king of the Palestinian pollsters. This willingness to compromise is one of three main trends he enumerates in a 16-page document that was released on the eve of elections, in the form of a special position paper issued by the United States Institute of Peace. This positive trend, Shikaki notes, remained unchanged even in the worst days of the second intifada. The second trend is that "Palestinian opposition to violence increases when diplomacy proves effective. Public support for violence increases in an environment of greater pain and suffering and decreases when threat perception is reduced".

"For the first time since the start of the peace process, a majority of Palestinians support a compromise settlement that is acceptable to a majority of Israelis. Therefore, the time is ripe to deal with permanent-status issues," Shikaki writes. This shift in support for compromise gives policymakers greater diplomatic room to maneuver than ever before. Conversely, "Palestinian misperception of Israeli public attitudes is evident even when it comes to one of the core elements of the peace process: the two-state solution. Lack of normal personal interaction, because the only Israelis most Palestinians encounter are soldiers or armed settlers, encourages misperception and the desire to portray the other side negatively."

The third trend: There is a close and constant direct connection among Palestinians between the state-building process and peace-making. The study demonstrates that without consistent progress toward stability, the chances of Palestinians finding their way to democracy and good governance decrease. Under current conditions, the democratic game will play into the hands of Hamas, and will minimize chances of peace with Israel. In the past decade, it became clear that the absence of good governance caused a weakening of the political institutions, the spread of corruption, and removal from the diplomatic process of the Islamists and the young generation of the nationalist movement. The outcome was that the Palestinian Authority succeeded in providing neither progress toward a settlement with Israel nor critical public services. This led to an erosion of its legitimacy and to encouragement of an opposition that defiantly challenged its leadership, to the point of establishment of a state within a state.

Given the situation, Shikaki continues, the Palestinian Authority leadership lost the political will to enforce law and order. Moreover, the Islamists, who are seen as uncorrupted, attracted increasingly greater waves of support, to the point of a shift in the balance of political forces. In this manner, the status of the nationalist groups, who were the surviving backbone of the peace process, was further weakened. Shikaki believes that a struggle against corruption, including the dismissal of many of the heads of the security organizations, is the key for Fatah to the hearts of the public that has found shelter in the bosom of Hamas.