Israel and the PA / Avoiding the Unity Dilemma

Prime Minister Ehud Olmert believes that Israel must not ease up on political pressure on Hamas, or relinquish the conditions the Quartet demands that the Palestinian government fulfill: recognizing Israel, renouncing terror and honoring previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.

From Olmert's perspective, acceptance of these conditions will turn Hamas ministers into viable negotiation partners, but in the meantime, they must not be considered legitimate. The prime minister sees the demands made by the international Quartet (the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia) as undermining Hamas' underlying beliefs and principles, and thinks that the insistence that they be fulfilled puts Israel in a convenient place vis-a-vis the international scene.

As long as Olmert continues to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas, thereby signaling his willingness to negotiate, and as long as Israel refrains from extensive military activity against Hamas in Gaza, the world will fall in line with the Israeli position.

Olmert's emissaries were told some 10 days ago in Washington that the Bush administration will be speaking with Fatah ministers in the Palestinian unity government, and there have been similar messages from Europe. But despite some softening regarding contact with Palestinian ministers, officials at the Prime Minister's Bureau said yesterday, the economic boycott on the Palestinian government is still intact.

Meanwhile, Israel has managed to avoid the dilemma posed by the formation of the Palestinian unity government concerning if, and when, to ease up the pressure and begin talks with Hamas. There are six reasons for Israel to hold a dialogue with Hamas, the last being the most important:

* It would enable Israel to speak with the strongest power on the Palestinian side.

* Hamas is responsible for the cease-fire with Israel, even though it is not forcing the Islamic Jihad to comply.

* Since Hamas agreed to the cease-fire more than two years ago, many fewer Israelis have been killed in terror attacks than during the time of the Fatah leadership.

* Hamas is a far more disciplined and organized group than Fatah.

* Hamas troubles Israel a lot less than Fatah did over civil rights issues, roadblocks and the separation fence.

* The gap between the Hamas position and that of Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni is much smaller than it seems.

The hudna, or extended truce, that Hamas is offering Israel is not much different from the long-term interim agreement that Olmert and Livni are suggesting. The two of them and Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh agree in their opposition to the final-status deal that Abbas is trying to promote.

But despite all these reasons, there is no internal debate in Israel over the opposition to speaking with Hamas. The left, which previously led the country to recognize the Palestine Liberation Organization, is committed to Abbas and Fatah. The security-intelligence establishment is worried about damaging relations with Egypt and Jordan, which want to curb the Islamic movements within their borders, and will have a hard time should Israel grant legitimacy to the Palestinian arm of the Muslim Brotherhood.

Labor Ministers Yuli Tamir and Ghaleb Majadele, who abstained yesterday in a vote on boycotting the Palestinian unity government, signaled a crack in the Israeli position. But they received no support from their colleagues, who voted with Olmert.

Due to the same factors that also affect Israeli opinion - support for Abbas and regional considerations - there is also no external pressure on Olmert to change his position. The Saudis are proud of their success in drawing Hamas into the fold and bringing the organization closer to a political process. But in the meantime, they have not managed to get Hamas to recognize Israel, not even indirectly. And as long as that is the situation, we cannot expect a real change in Olmert's position - nor a serious debate on the matter in Israel.

Only if the international position changes, or Hamas suddenly softens its position regarding the Quartet conditions, will Israel need to deal seriously with the issue of talking to Hamas.