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JERUSALEM - Hamas has designated this day, in this place, its Day of Rage. Why, then, the smiles on the faces of Mahmoud Zahar and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Perhaps it's because after more than 22 years of costly trial and error, Hamas has finally come upon the secret of how to bring down the Jewish state:

Let the ship sink itself.

This month, down here in the engine room of the Titanic, a single coherent order continues to sound from the officers shrouded in fog on the bridge: "More power!"

To the delight of Mahmoud Zahar and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Israel's homemade weapons of mass destruction - pro-settlement bureaucrats with conflicts of financial and ideological interest - have done in one meeting what Israel's foes have sought for generations: driving a stake through the heart of Israel's relationship with the White House. We should have known. But in the swamp of anomaly and impossibility that is Jerusalem, you can easily lose sight of, and belief in, the basics:

One of the curses of endless war, is the tendency to become one's own worst enemy - in every sense.

Forget, for the moment, the parallels with Iran. Forget, also, that Ahmadinejad would like nothing more in life than to focus Muslim anger and Western displeasure on Israel's policies in Jerusalem.

Consider, instead, that with Hamas literally at the gates, Israel is not only doing the Islamic Resistance Movement's bidding - Washington is beginning to relate to the Netanyahu government as if it were Hamas.

Israelis woke on Tuesday to an Army Radio report that George Mitchell had abruptly cancelled his scheduled visit to Israel, and that the U.S. Mideast envoy would not resume his discussions with Jerusalem until Israeli leaders agreed to three conditions set by Washington - an uncomfortably familiar echo of the U.S. position on contacts with Hamas.

One focus of debate in Israel was the question of how an insulted and incensed Obama administration preferred to see the imbroglio turn out. Specifically, is the president after Benjamin Netanyahu's head?

Judging from the administration's responses thus far, it appears far more likely that what the president would like to see laid low is not the Netanyahu government's head, but rather the part that often verbally functions as its butt end - specifically Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu party and Interior Minister Eli Yishai's Shas.

In the current Israeli political constellation, these two men, and these two parties - a volatile alliance of ultra-secular Russian-born immigrants and ultra-Orthodox sabras with roots in the Muslim world and the Mediterranean - are the effective veto both to the peace process as a whole and to a settlement freeze of any substance.

They represent a total of 26 of the 61 Knesset seats needed for a Netanyahu majority. More crucially, they are the primary roadblock to the entry of the centrist Kadima party, which at 28 seats is larger even than Netanyahu's ruling Likud.

Obama, whose math and history skills are as good as anyone's, knows both that Israeli government concessions are a near-monopoly of the center-right Likud. It is thus reasonable to assume that the president would like to see a Netanyahu-led coalition anchored by Kadima and Labor, whose 68-seat cushion could allow for the inevitable resignations of "rebel" Likud backbenchers.

For the time being, however, Lieberman and Yishai are enjoying the kind of shadenfreude that Hamas, for its part, has been trying not to make obvious. All three are the beneficiaries of a campaign by rightist Israeli activists which has seen trouble-making become a goal in its own right.

The Holy City, meanwhile, has the held-breath wariness of a fuse whose end had been lit, but whose other end was not in sight. For some on the right, there was evident relish in the situation, and not a little pride.

In one of the more remarkable, and ill-advised, editorials in its 77-year history, the Jerusalem Post poured oil on the smolder this week, rewriting Jewish history and tradition to declare that the newly dedicated Hurva synagogue in the Old City, "symbolizes, perhaps more than any other site, the Jewish people's yearnings to return to its homeland."

The piece is an extraordinary example of internal logic, and an indirect confirmation of fundamentalist Islamic fears of hopes to encroach on the Muslim shrine of Al Aqsa for the ultimate purpose of building a third Jewish Temple. Referring to the literal meaning of the Hurva, the editorial goes on to state that "To name something that is built a 'ruin' reveals a stubborn unwillingness to accept the present reality as unassailable."

 

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