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Here is the anticipated timetable in the Middle East until the end of March: This week, a new Iraqi government is supposed to be established. On March 22, the Arab summit conference is scheduled to convene in Algeria. At the same time, a government has to be formed in Lebanon, whereas Syria is supposed to announce a final timetable for withdrawal from that country. And there is even a free day to mark the first anniversary of the assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed Yassin. Yes, a year has passed already. A successful realization of this entire timetable will ensure a safe trip by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to Washington in April, when he will display his accomplishments: establishing a new system of presidential elections in Egypt, help in convincing Syria to leave Lebanon, and mainly, the creation of a cease-fire between Israel and the Palestinians, as a direct result of the Sharm el-Sheikh summit, which took place in February.

If everything does go smoothly, the May timetable will begin, with second elections scheduled for the local councils in the PA, as well as elections for the parliament in Lebanon. In June we can go to the beach, travel abroad and reserve places for the big show in July: the Israel Defense Forces disengagement from the Gaza Strip, and elections for the Palestinian parliament.

In order to ensure a smooth transition from one event to the next, last week President Mubarak wanted to begin dialogue among the Palestinian factions about extending the hudna. But the attack at the Stage club in Tel Aviv led to its postponement to this week - from yesterday until this coming Saturday - and in the interim, the Lebanon affair has also exploded. Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian minister of intelligence and the mediator on Palestinian issues, was brought to Damascus for a heart-to-heart talk with President Bashar Assad to convince him to pull his forces out of Lebanon, in order to calm the situation in the wake of the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri; at the same time, Suleiman also asked for and received Syria's support for a continuation in Cairo of the discourse among the Palestinian factions.

Meanwhile, Mubarak had another suggestion: to have a senior Syrian representative participate in the Cairo talks, perhaps even Foreign Minister Farouk Shara. This will give Syria an opportunity to enter the political process through the back door. Egypt, which in any case is sponsoring the talks, will not bear sole responsibility if they fail, and most important - the Palestinian factions, and particularly Hamas and Islamic Jihad, will feel committed to reaching an agreement, under the watchful eyes of Syria, which is still hosting them in its territory.

Spearhead organization

To what extent Syrian pressure, or to be more precise, the fear of being expelled from Damascus, affects these organizations, could be learned from an interview given by Hamas political leader Khaled Meshal on the weekend to the Egyptian weekly magazine October, in which he said that "the Palestinian organizations rely on God and on the [Islamic] nation, which will demonstrate only good to the organizations." This statement requires an explanation. Although Meshal did not say explicitly that he is afraid of expulsion, he in effect called upon the Islamic countries (Iran and Lebanon are the main ones that come to mind) to prepare to host the leadership of the organization if it is expelled from Syria.

On Sunday, the Palestinian delegations began to arrive in Egypt. It is clear to them that the talks will focus on an additional extension of the cease-fire, beyond the month that was agreed on at the Sharm el-Sheikh summit. For the time being, no Syrian representative has joined them, in spite of Assad's agreement in principle, and it is possible that Syria, which understands that participation in the talks is not only a privilege but a responsibility as well, will at the last moment refrain from participating. But even without Syrian representation, Hamas is bringing with it to Cairo the impressions made by the new atmosphere resulting from the events in Lebanon, American pressure and the desire to be erased from the European countries' list of terrorist organizations. In that same interview in October, Meshal explained that "Hamas is not a local organization, but the spearhead of a national project, which has Arab, Islamic and international ambitions as well. Therefore it must attain positions of control by `legal' means, which will grant it political legitimacy, as required now by the logic of the new worldwide regime."

Here is another twist of the tongue by Meshal, which requires elucidation. "The logic of the new worldwide regime" is the pressure that the Bush administration is applying to Syria and other Arab countries to establish a democratic regime, and more important, to dismantle the terrorist organizations. The result is that Hamas is in need of a legal status in the territories, which in any case will also endow its leadership in Syria with the status of a legitimate organization.

In order to attain this status in the territories, it is necessary at least to participate in the parliamentary elections; because from the moment Hamas is part of the political fabric of the Palestinian leadership, the same leadership that will continue to conduct negotiations with Israel, it will no longer be possible, at least in the opinion of Hamas, to describe it as a terrorist organization.

It is important to take note that Meshal prefers to relate to these elections as a legal process, but in quotation marks. Because the legality of the elections stems from the Oslo Accords, and the Oslo Accords, as we know, are treife (the opposite of kosher) in the eyes of Hamas. But Hamas is now willing even to go as far as to be a part of the Palestine Liberation Organization, "on condition that the structure of the PLO undergoes reform," as Meshal says, "and is based on democratic foundations." As part of the PLO, the organization will in fact bear part of the responsibility, but it will be able to guide the continuation of the political process, and to present conditions for a final status agreement, if it agrees to such an agreement at all.

Meshal revealed that a six-member panel has been established, headed by the chair of the PLC, Salim Zanoun, whose job it is to prepare the reform in the PLO, and that Hamas is in close contact with this committee. To remove any doubt as to the goal of Hamas, even after the political process, Meshal mentions in his words to October the supra-national mission of Hamas as an organization whose goal is not only to restore the occupied lands to the Palestinians, but to come closer to realizing the vision of a state of Islamic law, and not only in Palestine.

The Egyptian interest

At the same time, Hamas must also explain to its public why there has been a change in its position, and why it is willing to join the Palestinian parliament and the PLO. Dr. Osama al-Mahmoudi, one of the important Hamas PR people, discussed that when he explained in an article on the Web site of the organization that there is no contradiction between partnership with the new PA and "the resistance project," in other words, the armed struggle. According to his explanations, no agreement signed with Israel will be based on the Oslo Accords as a source of authority, and those who signed the Oslo Accords on behalf of the Palestinians now understand that the accords are not a source of authority (these words essentially contradict the words of PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in an interview this week with Oded Granot of Israel's Channel 1 television station; in this interview, Abu Mazen revived the Oslo Accords and considered them a source of everything that is now taking place in the process between Israel and the Palestinians).

But the more fascinating explanation is related to the distinction made by Mahmoudi between Hamas opposition to participating in the elections in 1996 and its consent to participate in the upcoming elections in July. "The opposition at the time was political rather than religious," wrote Mahmoudi. In other words, the question at the time was not whether it is even permitted to participate in elections, but what the purpose of those elections was. And according to him, the 1996 elections were no more than submission to Israeli pressure and a demonstration of Palestinian willingness to legalize everything Israel demanded, and particularly to grant legitimacy to the Oslo Accords. Moreover, the parliament that was elected then was supposed to, and in practice did, lend its sponsorship to every act of corruption on the part of the PA. Mahmoudi discusses the anticipated change in the elections law, which mandates that the elections be partly regional, the change that will enable Hamas to participate in them.

And in addition, "The Palestinian people have a right to have the opposition [i.e. Hamas] fulfill its role in defending them, politically, socially, financially and in terms of security, as it did in the conflict with the Zionist enemy," wrote Mahmoudi. That is the heart of the matter. In 1996, Hamas could have joined the PA only as a marginal power, and as a tail of the Fatah; now it can demand equal distribution of authority in the wake of its achievements in the intifada, with their crowning achievement being Israel's withdrawal from Gaza. That is the stage at which the organization is deciding to translate its achievements on the ground into political achievements, while exploiting the organizational weakness being displayed by Fatah. The organization will try to consolidate this new situation in the dialogue in Cairo.