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The most urgent and important mission for Israel at this time is preventing a Hamas takeover of the West Bank. It is possible to do this by weakening Hamas through visible diplomatic progress; helping the effective and successful functioning of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayad's government; and the creation of conditions for the total failure of the Hamas regime in the Gaza Strip.

The failure of Israeli policy thus far derives from the refusal to recognize two facts of life: The first is that Hamas is an uncompromising historic enemy, part of the Iranian system that has condemned us to destruction. It is necessary to vanquish it, and in order to emerge victorious, military campaigns and arrests are not enough - it is imperative to bring about its political-public defeat via another Palestinian element.

The second fact of life is that the Fatah movement, with all its known weaknesses, is the only political factor in the Palestinian arena that is capable of presenting a secular and pragmatic alternative to the Hamas.

It was not the recognition of the historic justice of the Zionist movement that made moderates of the heads of Fatah, but rather the recognition that there is no chance for a modern Palestinian state that has a growing economy without close cooperation with Israel. People who gave all the years of their lives to the Palestinian national issue prefer an independent state alongside Israel to seeing their dream go up in the clouds of smoke of a third Islamic intifada. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and Fayad are therefore the only conceivable partners shaping a reality that is acceptable to us between the Jordan River and the sea.

What steps does Israel need to take to stop Hamas and to strengthen the moderate alternative?

First of all, it is necessary to release a large number of Fatah prisoners, headed by Marwan Barghouti. The number of Israeli victims who will be spared by his exit to political activity outside of prison is many times greater than the number of those for whose deaths he was convicted. Of the 11,000 prisoners who are held by Israel, 6,000 are Fatah people. The political benefit in freeing many of them is immeasurably greater than the security risk entailed in doing so.

The tax monies that Israel collects for the Palestinians must be released without delay for use by the Fayad government. A comprehensive "security package" must be built for this government. This must include the removal of Tanzim and al Aqsa Brigades wanted men from the circle of terror and the strengthening of the government security organizations, including equipping and reorganizing them in accordance with the Dayton plan and in coordination with Israeli security elements. If these measures are carried out successfully, it will be possible to ease significantly the regime of roadblocks, especially in the northern West Bank.

It is also necessary to encourage economic initiatives from the Palestinian private sector, and from international elements to establish industrial zones and investments in the West Bank. It is necessary to increase significantly the number of Palestinians working in Israel.

During the past year, thousands of inhabitants of the West Bank stayed regularly and for prolonged periods in Israel, especially in agricultural jobs, without there having been even a single case of hostile action perpetrated by them. With respect to the Israeli economy, Palestinian workers are preferable to foreign workers.

And last but not least: It is necessary to embark on a discussion with the Palestinian president about the principles of the permanent status agreement. As for Gaza, it is necessary to maintain the strict avoidance of any contact with elements of the Hamas government.

Humanitarian activity by international aid organizations should not be prevented nor should electricity and water be cut off, but it is necessary to destroy the Hamas perception that sees contact with Israel as a religious and national sin. They must not be allowed to enjoy the best of both worlds, and it is necessary to reveal the price that this perception is exacting from the inhabitants of the Gaza Strip. That price is preventing any trade activity at the crossing points as long as there are Hamas people or their representatives on the Gaza Stripside.

In the creation of the Palestinian entity in the West Bank, there is not only an Israeli interest, but also a regional interest. Iran has already gained control of southern Iraq, and it is on its way to a violent takeover of Lebanon.

The countries of the region that do not want to be next in line to be swallowed up by the new Persian empire must seriously help in the effort to stop Hamas.

Ephraim Sneh is a Labor MK and until recently served as deputy defense minister.