It's Hamas Who Decides

In the last three years, Israel has preferred principles and ideology over politics, so Hamas is now the main decider on what goes on in the region.

What suspense, what panic ensued at the end of the week. Will Hamas extend the cease-fire or won't it? How exactly should Khaled Meshal's "no" be interpreted, along with Mahmoud Zahar's "maybe" and Ismail Haniyeh's vague mutterings? In the communities of the western Negev, quotes from Al Jazeera have become more important than what Tzipi Livni or Ehud Barak have to say.

It is not the state that will determine what happens, it is the organization. And the organization decided - no more cease-fire. Ostensibly, a clear and agreed-on modus operandi has been created between Israel and Hamas. Hamas shoots - Israel closes the crossings; Hamas is quiet - Israel opens the crossings. Both sides know that military options are limited. Hamas will not bring Israel down with a few dozen Qassam rockets and Israel recognizes that at least at this stage it cannot propose more than a limited return of fire and continued sanctions.

But Hamas has a major advantage in this violent dialogue. The initiative of whether to extend the cease-fire or shoot has passed to them. Israel has been left in the position of reacting, and Hamas has scored some successes. The Israeli sanctions are a burden, but the tunnel system connecting the Gaza Strip to Egypt are a reasonable alternative infrastructure. Public services such as police, schools, clinics and transportation are working, and often working well. True, there is no work, but there is money that goes directly to charity groups; that is, to most of the population. Palestinian autonomy in the Strip has proven able to function under harsher conditions.

More importantly, Gaza's residents have "gotten used to" the year and a half of unfettered rule in the Strip. Hamas does not have to worry about a civil uprising, and the rationale for the Israeli sanctions has waned on its own. It is actually Israel's government that has to worry about an uprising of the people of the Negev, especially after Arcadi Gaydamak can no longer fill its shoes.

But Hamas, meanwhile, has achieved much more than the ability to adapt and govern. Thanks to Israel, it has become a strategic force in the entire Middle East. Egypt sees it as an extension of Iran, and conducts a dialogue with it as if it were an enemy state. So does Saudi Arabia, which used to be Hamas' main sponsor and has now lost its place to Iran. Jordan, for its part, is actually trying to get closer to the organization's leaders; Hamas is the assurance that Jordan will not become the alternative Palestinian state.

Syria, meanwhile, is using Hamas to participate in the peace process, of which it is not supposedly a part. Syria even protects the organization, which did not come to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks in Cairo in November, and accuses Egypt of not being an honest broker in the Hamas-Fatah conflict. The result is new tension between Egypt and Syria because of Hamas.

Firing on Israel and Israeli sanctions assure the continued support of Arab public opinion for Hamas, and thus the organization's position with the Arab governments. The Abbas administration's weakness, the fact that he is unable to wring any real concessions from Israel, the collapse of the diplomatic dialogue and the forecast that the right will be leading Israel - these have all made Hamas the "appropriate Palestinian response."

Most of the Palestinian state is in the West Bank, but it is led from the Gaza Strip. After all, if Abbas failed with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, how will he succeed with Benjamin Netanyahu? It can already be predicted that if the Palestinian Authority holds elections in about a year, with Netanyahu as Israel's prime minister, Hamas will score a sweeping victory. It can also be assumed that Netanyahu is not concerned about this, which will again "prove" that there is no Palestinian partner and allow him to shrug off any agreement made with Abbas.

Three years have gone by since the last Palestinian Authority elections, elections that not only led Hamas to power, but created the possibility for Hamas and Israel to reach a maximum agreement. Not recognition, but practical cooperation. Not peace, but co-management of projects. Israel preferred principles and ideology over politics; symbols over tactical wisdom. Now Israel is the one with its binoculars trained on Gaza, to find out what Hamas will decide.