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"Military officials" in Israel were panic-stricken last week in response to the attack in the Gaza Strip aimed at liquidating a Fatah activist, Hassan al-Madhoun, and which "incidentally" killed Hamas activist Fawzi Abu al-Qarea, as well. Would Hamas respond? Would the cease-fire be broken? Should Sderot residents enter the bomb shelters? And the answers were mainly stammered.

One such response was, "According to the intelligence we had at hand, the Hamas activist was not supposed to be in the car of the Fatah activist who was the target of the liquidation." That is, if the Israel Defense Forces had known that the tzaddik [righteous person] al-Qarea was traveling with al-Madhoun, it would not have fired the deadly missile. Because now Hamas activists, even those publicly described by the movement as missile engineers and as having participated in terror attacks in Israel, are also ticking political bombs. And not just for Palestinian politics, but mainly for Israel.

Hamas now holds a double balance of deterrence: military and political, of the sort it never even dreamed of wielding when it signed a cease-fire agreement with the Palestinian Authority. Though "senior IDF officers" are angry at Egypt over its close ties with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, ties that ultimately produced the cease-fire, these officers and the Israeli government should thank Mubarak for every quiet day that passes in which Hamas continues to abide by the cease-fire. And they should hope that Egypt will be able continue to extend it. Because without this cease-fire, the IDF withdrawal from Gaza would look entirely different. And one can only imagine what dilemmas the IDF and Israeli government would have faced during the days of the withdrawal, when thousands of Israeli demonstrators stood at the gates of Gaza, if Hamas had launched dozens of rockets or fired directly at the crowd. How would the withdrawal have been perceived if it had been accompanied by dozens of Jewish fatalities, which would have immediately mandated the killing of hundreds of Arabs. Oh, what a unilateral withdrawal it would have been then. It surely would not have been the quiet withdrawal by agreement that we experienced.

Without the start of negotiations, with the intentional foot-dragging in implementing agreements made prior to the withdrawal (a port, removal of additional checkpoints, chatter about a Palestinian airport, easements at crossings, remember?), Israel is now in an impossible position: a virtual cease-fire agreement with an entity it defines as a terror organization, which holds the power of veto over the entire relationship between Israel and the legitimate Palestinian government. Because, as in the intifada period, Israel has again declared the PA to be a "non-partner" at best, or guilty of permitting terror activity, at worst.

In this situation, there is no room for even the illusion that Israel could carry out additional consensual withdrawals, unless Egypt reaches additional agreements for Israel with Hamas or Islamic Jihad. The result is that, instead of conducting direct negotiations with the PA, which of course would require setting sights on a diplomatic solution, Israel is circumventing the PA via Cairo. As a result, it appears to Israel that it can continue the current situation: a cease-fire as an optimal solution for those who do not wish to withdraw. This makes it necessary to preserve the status quo of deterrence between organization and state.

In this way, the momentum the withdrawal from Gaza was supposed to create has gotten stuck: deep within the dunes of Israeli politics and vis-a-vis an American president who believes the coming of the messiah will occur before peace between Israel and the Palestinians. In this situation, the tendency is to roll one's eyes and aspire to the minimum that seems possible: perhaps the dismantling of another unauthorized outpost, and one less targeted killing of a wanted Palestinian, perhaps the expulsion of a few Jewish hooligans from the Hebron market, and only one more arrest of a senior activist. That is, to replace negotiations with a slightly improved occupation. And when this is the state of affairs, one can more or less predict when the third intifada will erupt.