'Upgraded' Hudna Lets Both Sides Claim Victory

For the Palestinians, this hudna will be their version of the "Grapes of Wrath" understandings - when Israel and the Hezbollah cut a quiet 1996 deal to avoid attacking civilian populations on both sides of the Lebanese border.

Egypt could not have planned more convenient circumstances for preparing the second hudna. The Geneva Accord has gathered momentum, bypassing the road map - even U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell meets with its architects; the Palestinian opposition to the separation fence has become a pet project for the American administration; the European Union has started a de facto boycott of products from the settlements; the American loan guarantee cuts appear to be not only a direct response to the separation fence but also a not very subtle hint about the ongoing settlement expansions; the warnings by four former Shin Bet chiefs that Israel is heading for disaster filled headlines in the Arab world; Ahmed Qureia has won immediate legitimacy, not only among the Palestinians but with the U.S.; and President Bush suddenly needs an achievement in the Israeli-Palestinian process to win back some of the points he has lost because of the imbroglio in Iraq. At the beginning of November, when Egypt began its new initiative, all those conditions were on back burners. Now, Hosni Mubarak can persuade the Palestinian groups that there have been political and diplomatic achievements that make sailing down the hudna path worthwhile.

Omar Suleiman, the Egyptian intelligence minister, explained the new reality to the heads of the Palestinian organizations during a long speech at the opening of the Cairo meetings. These new circumstances, said Suleiman, who is supposed to go to Washington tomorrow to present the principles of the hudna deal to the Americans, could yield a new, "upgraded" hudna: no longer a unilateral agreement by the organizations to lay down their weapons, as in the first hudna, but a bilateral agreement, in which Israel is forced to become a genuine partner and thus grant the Palestinian Authority, particularly Arafat's man Qureia, the first political achievement in three years. The achievement would mean at least the impression of a military tie between the sides. The Palestinian commentary on the hudna will therefore likely be that the intifada made Israel's tanks and helicopters hold their fire and stopped the most powerful military force in the Middle East from continuing the war, and precluding its ability to declare victory. That commentary is a mirror image of how Israel presents its version of the events: the weakness of the organizations and the blows the Israel Defense Forces delivered against them, made them blink first. It's a hudna that enables both sides to wave their fists in the air as victorious.

The trouble with such a hudna is that it will render the political action feeble. It won't solve any of the outstanding problems between the Israelis and Palestinians; it won't stop the fence or even get rid of a single illegal outpost. To take Deputy Defense Minister Ze'ev Boim seriously: the hudna at most will only somewhat reduce IDF military activity in the territories - fewer assassinations, less "shaving" of farmland and buildings near Jewish settlements, fewer violent raids.

But there won't be any political initiative, since Israel won't give a prize to terror even after it declares a cease-fire. The hudna, as far as Israel is concerned, will be at most a temporary fulfillment of the first article in the Tenet document (RIP), the Mitchell document (RIP) and the road map. There are quite a few articles padding the gap between it and a political process: the end to incitement, the destruction of the "terrorist infrastructures," the unification of the Palestinian armed forces, and maybe even keeping the Sabbath.

That political lassitude has a chance to become rooted, because the hudna has a chance to last quite a while. The Palestinian organizations understand that Washington is warming up the wheels of the Bush election campaign, and the pressure on Israel, as symbolic as it has been until now, will recede. This is not a good time to try to win more achievements with violence and therefore it would be best to turn the hudna into a political achievement, albeit a limited one. That is also Egypt's position.

For the Palestinians, this hudna will be their version of the "Grapes of Wrath" understandings - when Israel and the Hezbollah cut a quiet 1996 deal to avoid attacking civilian populations on both sides of the Lebanese border: an agreement on deterrence.

Israel might claim victory; but will continue biting its fingernails until the next round of violence, when once again it won't give in to terror.