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Do the Palestinians have a favorite candidate in the struggle over the Likud leadership, a senior intelligence analyst was asked last weekend. Who do they prefer - Ariel Sharon or Benjamin Netanyahu? And how, by commission or by default, do they intend to assist this candidate?

Events in the Palestinian arena, from terror attacks to diplomatic moves, have influenced every Israeli election since 1988 - either to the detriment of the incumbent government in its position as the party responsible for the security deterioration, or to the detriment of the Labor Party (when it was outside the government), which committed the sin of treating the Palestinians too softly. Now, without Yasser Arafat and post-Gaza withdrawal, and particularly more pointedly today and tomorrow, the focal point of the political wrangle has moved to the inner sanctums of the Likud.

The intelligence analyst's answer did not satisfy the curiosity of those who want to know which of the two men is more to the Palestinians' liking. As much as an internal debate on this issue exists among the Palestinians - one that is based on the political and personal attributes of the two men - there is no clear-cut decision on the matter. The Palestinians have one clear preference, intelligence sources confirm - they prefer a Likud government over one led by Labor.

In this case, the Palestinians mean Mahmoud Abbas. Not necessarily Hamas. By its decision Saturday to attack the Negev with dozens of rockets, despite the report that Israel did not set off the lethal explosion during its victory procession in Jabalya, Hamas challenged Sharon, and added the Qassam explosives to the balance already tipped against the prime minister in his party's central committee.

The attack verifies the claims of critics of the military withdrawal (as opposed to the civilian withdrawal of the settlements) from Gaza: The map of Qassam targets has only changed, not been shelved; the evacuation was exploited by the terror organizations to gain strength - the weaponry on display in the procession, some of which exploded, was brought in from Egyptian territory during the wide-open days following the withdrawal - and Hamas was not deterred by the threats of an Israeli response. An overly soft response would work against Sharon, but so would an overly harsh response, which would be interpreted as a transparent effort to prove to the Likud faithful that the old pugnacious Arik is still alive and kicking. In any event, Sharon will not be able to tout the withdrawal this evening as an achievement that justifies preventing his ouster.

Among Palestinians, the withdrawal is viewed first and foremost as a victory of the resistance to occupation, and therefore, as a victory of Hamas and other groups. Abbas no longer disputes the formula of "the resistance produced the disengagement," and now is trying to redirect the debate to the future - how to engineer the withdrawal to produce additional gains. This is an argument over diplomatic possibilities, four months before elections in which Hamas has decided to participate. The issue of co-participation in the government is still unresolved: Hamas is like Agudat Israel, which loathes ministerial portfolios, but hungrily eyes chunks of the budget for its own objectives. There are those in Hamas who are afraid of winning too large a share of the vote (more than 40 percent), and are equally wary of too little a share (less than 30 percent.) A considerable result would make it harder for Hamas to refuse to join the government and bear responsibility, as opposed to the current situation in which Hamas operates a "parallel authority."

Abbas versus Hamas is not a two-way match. There is a third participant as well - the Palestinian public, whose power has grown in the past year, and which helped to maintain calm and ensure the withdrawal's quiet execution. This public wishes to improve its quality of life, and it realizes that the pledges of the withdrawal should strengthen Abbas in his efforts to impose discipline on Hamas and Islamic Jihad, especially given the (American and Egyptian) diplomatic pressure and (Israeli) military pressure. The inflexible line taken by IDF Chief of Staff Dan Halutz - who calls for a severe response to every terrorist attack and missile, and the display of a readiness to up the ante to the point of outright escalation - is meant to remind Hamas' leadership that it is playing with fire: If Israel is provoked and the Palestinians lose the accomplishments they gained from the withdrawal, Hamas will be held responsible for loss of the Palestinian public's hope. IDF sources swore last night that the plan of the General Staff's and the Southern Command's operation, "First Rain," which was put into action yesterday, was initiated by the military echelons, and that the politicians' involvement was merely the plan's approval. The operation is not time-limited, and the burden of ending the operation has been placed on Abbas.

The flare-up over the weekend should spur Abbas to finally screw up his courage and act to shut down the weapons workshops as a first step toward disarming the armed groups. His and Sharon-Netanyahu's political timetable, however, makes it certain that even if he does, as he is obliged by the road map, there will not be any additional diplomatic progress until next spring or summer. And until then, many more Palestinian rockets and Israeli aircraft will be buzzing through the southern skies.