Dismay in Europe

The Europeans have reacted to the Hamas election victory with shock, dismay and helplessness. They were barely over the disappearance of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the hero of the disengagement, from the political scene when they were hit by an even harder blow that for them represented the destruction of the peace process.

Officials in Brussels are admitting to the first signs of panic.

"Our Middle East experts are running around like headless chickens," is how one EU official described the atmosphere in The Daily Telegraph.

On the official level, the Europeans cannot avoid praising the "successful democratic process" and the "peacefulness, freedom and fairness" of the elections. But they have also rushed to declare, as did the Quartet, the basic contradiction between an armed movement and militia activity, on one hand, and building a democratic state, on the other.

The Europeans and the Quartet are maintaining their demand that Hamas renounce violence and terror, disarm and recognize the State of Israel. The road map and a two-state solution achieved through negotiations are still an integral part of their lexicon. So, too, is the establishment of a law-abiding Palestinian state in which political and economic reforms head the agenda.

From Europe's point of view, the ball is in Hamas' court. If Hamas adopts and above all implements their lexicon, then the aid will continue to flow. If not, the flow will be cut off. Europe is the main source of the Palestinians' funding. It gives them about 340 million euros annually. For years, the EU has been in conflict with Israel, which argues that some of the money intended for the PA finds its way into the terror infrastructure. Now, however, this infrastructure is supposed to form the PA's government, which will pose a complicated dilemma for the Europeans.

One can find a hint of the EU's likely immediate- and short-term policy in statements by its foreign policy chief, Javier Solana. In an interview with Le Monde, Solana said a terrorist group should not be recognized merely because it won at the polls and that an election victory does not make a terror organization legitimate.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel provided another signal of Europe's future behavior toward Israel and the territories. In a wide-ranging interview to Haaretz on the eve of Germany's general elections, Merkel said that PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is responsible for preventing terror. She stressed that terror must never be a tool for policy, and that long-term stability will only come when the supporters of Hamas gain economic perspective.

Yesterday it seemed as if Merkel prefered to set aside the conclusion of her previous statements. "Our ally is not Hamas, but rather Mahmoud Abbas," Merkel's spokesman Ulrich Wilhelm stressed. The message was that during Merkel's visit to Israel and the West Bank, which starts today, the chancellor's only interlocutor in the territories will be the PA chairman.

The tough line was echoed this weekend by all of the continent's leaders, from Italy's Silvio Berlusconi to French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, from British Foreign Minister Jack Straw to Swedish Foreign Minister Laila Freivalds, who is known for her open criticism of Israel.

It can be assume that the Europeans will maintain this tone tomorrow, when the EU foreign ministers convene in Brussels, and in London when the Quartet ministers meet. The four conditions: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence, disarmament and promising to accept the international obligations taken on by the PA as part of the peace process, will continue to guide the EU as it deals formally with the new situation.

The big question is how the EU will behave behind the scenes. To what extent will it continue to maintain the boycott of Hamas and when will it reach the conclusion that the good of the EU requires it to remove the movement from the list of terror organizations, which is a condition for transfering aid to a Hamas-led government?

Those who are familiar with EU history know that as far back as 1980 the European Community, as it was then known, adopted the Venice Declaration recognizing the right of the Palestinians to self-determination and calling for negotiations with the Palestine Liberation Organization - which was still a terror organization calling for the destruction of Israel.

Israel is aware that some in Europe will again call for acting in the name of "the will of the people," this time also on behalf of "Palestinian democracy." They will certainly not set the tone before the Palestinian government is formed and before the Israeli elections. However, there is a basis for assuming that the European "headless chickens" will not be able to escape from the Venice precedent for long.