By the Ballot or the Bomb

If Abbas is not strengthened by the U.S. and Israel, the withdrawal from Gaza will turn into Hamas' victory parade, and then there will be no need for elections or for international recognition in order to launch the third intifada.

Yesterday morning, at his meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon proved - as he does at every meeting with a foreign dignitary - that the Palestinian Authority is not diligently dismantling the terrorist infrastructure. The "terrorist infrastructure," in Sharon's lexicon, is a code name for the Islamic Resistance Movement, better known as Hamas. Usually, Israeli complaints about the Palestinians' laxity in dealing with this violent organization are accompanied by protests over anti-Israeli and often anti-Semitic incitement, and a demand of the guest to avoid any contact with the bastards.

This ritual will be repeated, more or less, when Sharon meets PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas tomorrow. The last part will be missing. Sharon will not demand of Abbas that he cut all ties with the organization whose slogan is "holy war" against the "Jewish Nazis." Sharon will shake the hand of the Palestinian leader - the same leader who legitimized religious fundamentalists whose stated goal is "to confront the enemies" and to impose Islamic rule on all of Palestine. Not only is the prime minister not demanding that Abbas condemn Hamas and reign it in. Sharon is allowing the Palestinian leader to legitimize the organization via the polling station - the ultimate sanctioning body of democracy.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has warned that if Hamas wins the elections in the territories, Israel will abandon the disengagement plan. If Shalom could just tear himself away from the diplomatic corps appointment committees for long enough to visit his ministry's legal department, he would discover that he need not wait for the results of the elections (which, in any case, have been postponed until after the disengagement). Foreign Ministry legal exerts would tell him that the Oslo Accords are designed to ensure that parties or individuals who aspire to advance their cause via illegal or undemocratic means and who disseminate racist propaganda, are kept away from the polling booth. Hamas' charter puts the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" to shame.

One can understand why Israel demands of the United States and the European Union what is does not demand of its neighbor. After all, the meeting between Abbas and Hamas leaders in Cairo earlier this year was responsible for the temporary lull in hostilities. Yet it is hard to comprehend why a government that protests at the top of its voice when foreign diplomats, however low-ranking, meet with Hamas, turns a blind eye to that same terror organization's participation in the elections. Eyebrows were even raised in the Muqata, the PA headquarters in Ramallah. With all due respect to democracy, would U.S President George W. Bush allow Al-Qaida to run for office in Iraq?

It is in Israel's interest for Hamas to beat its swords into pens. It is not in Israel's interest for the Palestinian people to be shown that Hamas can hold pens and swords. But if Sharon and Bush can accept Hamas entering the elected Palestinian body via the front door, without any preconditions and in violation of existing agreements, how can Abbas be expected to slam the door shut in Hamas' face?

The United States and Israel are entitled, if not obligated, to demand that Abbas bar Hamas from running in the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council, until such time as the organization disarms and accepts the basic democratic principle of one law and one army.

There are signs that Abbas would be happy to have his hand forced, to push Hamas into choosing between religion and politics, between unity of ranks and civil war. Hamas derives its power from the weakening of the secular Palestinian nationalist movements. In order to weaken Hamas, its political rivals must be bolstered. It is vital, therefore, to ensure that Abbas comes across as a proud partner in talks with Sharon - and not as a collaborator with Israel. If not as a partner for a final status agreement - at least as the new landlord in the territories, someone who Israel can turn to, someone who controls who enters and who leaves his territory. If not as the liberator of Al-Aqsa, then as the leader who freed prisoners, smashed barriers, lifted roadblocks and froze the settlements. Without all of these achievements, the withdrawal from Gaza will turn into Hamas' victory parade, and then there will be no need for elections or for international recognition in order to launch the third intifada.