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Israel Assesses a New Reality

Times Staff Writers

The triumph of the militant Islamist group Hamas in Palestinian parliamentary elections is forcing Israel to reevaluate virtually every aspect of its complex and highly fraught relationship with the Palestinians.

At issue are the prospects for side-by-side statehood, Israel’s economic and diplomatic ties to the Palestinian Authority, the Israeli military’s posture in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and ordinary Israelis’ visceral response to seeing a feared and hated foe achieve an undreamed-of success.

The crisis over Hamas also infuses Israel’s domestic political scene with fresh uncertainty only weeks after the shock of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s incapacitating stroke and only two months before an election in which his successor will be chosen.

At the same time, it buttresses Sharon’s go-it-alone policy in determining borders with or without the consent of the Palestinians.

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“The thinking in Israel now is unilateralism, which is based on the view that there is no partner” for negotiations, said Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University. “To some extent, the Hamas victory only reinforces that.”

Analysts said they expected Israel to move cautiously in the coming weeks to take time to assess how the new Palestinian power structure unfolded and to avoid potentially provocative actions. Israeli media reported that the army would move more carefully and that “targeted killings” of militant leaders appeared to have been halted, except in cases where the targets were believed to be on the verge of an attack against Israelis.

“The idea is not to generate unusual noises, so as not to give the other side an excuse to break the rules of the game,” wrote Alex Fishman, military affairs correspondent for the daily Yediot Aharonot newspaper.

Long-term strategic thinking will be tempered by daily events on the ground, analysts said. In the present charged environment, for example, rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel could prompt a harsher military response, even if carried out by groups other than Hamas.

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Israeli officials remain concerned that any outbreak of serious fighting between victorious Hamas and defeated ruling movement Fatah could spill over into attacks against Israel. On Saturday, Fatah-linked gunmen rampaged for a second day, firing shots into the air and briefly taking over the vacant parliamentary buildings in Gaza City and Ramallah.

Even before Hamas’ unexpected victory in Wednesday’s vote, Israel was preoccupied with the question of the shape and nature of a future Palestinian state.

Before he was felled by a massive stroke on Jan. 4, Sharon pulled Jewish settlers and Israeli troops out of the Gaza Strip, largely because he had come to see it as a demographic liability. Israel, he believed, should selectively relinquish control of areas where Palestinians vastly outnumbered Israeli Jews -- such as Gaza, where about 9,000 settlers lived among more than 1.3 million Palestinians.

Early indications are that this approach will also be taken by Sharon’s heir apparent, interim Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. With a Hamas-dominated political structure in place on the Palestinian side, Israel probably will accelerate work on its barrier in the West Bank, and decide on its own whether to pull back from isolated West Bank settlements, as Sharon had been expected to do.

Olmert, though, must first pass an electoral test of his own on March 28. His centrist Kadima Party holds a commanding lead in opinion polls, but right-wing prime minister hopeful Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party will hammer away at the theme that the Gaza pullout helped pave the way for Hamas’ ascent to power -- and argue that additional territorial concessions from Israel would only strengthen the radical group’s standing in Palestinians’ eyes.

But many believe that Hamas or no Hamas, the broad public consensus in Israel for unilaterally establishing defensible borders will remain unchanged.

“Hamas’ victory establishes a new reality in the Middle East,” Ami Ayalon, a former director of the Shin Bet domestic security service, told Israel Radio.

“We have to wait until the dust settles in order to fully plumb the depths of this reality and study its complexities, but Israel’s main strategic objective has not changed: We wish to disengage from the Palestinians.”

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With the shock of Hamas’ win over long-ruling Fatah, the first impulse of the outside world has been to threaten to isolate the Islamist group diplomatically and financially unless it renounces its goal of Israel’s destruction.

Israel, along with its chief ally the United States, says it will refuse any dealings with Hamas unless it recognizes the Jewish state’s existence. The new foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, has spent the days since the election results conveying that point to her counterparts the world over.

Livni told reporters that in discussions with a number of other countries’ foreign ministers, she pressed them to send Hamas “a very clear, unequivocal message ... that elections are not a whitewash for terror.”

“Hamas cannot be a partner of Israel, and the fact that it will lead the Palestinian Authority, if indeed this is what happens, means that the Palestinian Authority also cannot be a partner,” she said.

Behind the scenes, however, there is a keen recognition in Israel that a complete severing of ties with the Palestinians is a near impossibility in practical terms.

Even with Hamas in power, “it is reasonable to assume that a way will be found to cooperate that will ensure the Palestinians’ basic needs: electricity, water, agricultural exports, medical assistance and the like,” commentator Shimon Schiffer wrote in Yediot.

Moreover, there is precedent for limited official contact between Hamas and Israel. Israel has dealings as necessary with a number of cities, towns and villages in the West Bank and Gaza where Hamas had already won municipal elections over the last year.

One sign of Israel’s careful approach was the decision Friday to proceed, at least for the time being, with transferring the estimated $45 million per month in tax proceeds that are collected by Israel on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. The current Palestinian leadership, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas, said the money was desperately needed now for paying the salaries of thousands of employees.

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“The Palestinian Authority still exists -- there is no other Palestinian government,” former Prime Minister Shimon Peres told Israel Radio. “We have no intention of hurting them, starving them, humiliating them.”

For most Israelis, the only association with Hamas has been the most traumatic one possible: the killing and maiming of hundreds of citizens in suicide bombings carried out by the group’s military wing.

Yet an opinion poll conducted last week found substantial numbers of Israelis expressing willingness to open some form of dialogue with Hamas. The survey, published Friday in the Maariv newspaper, found that 40% of respondents would be willing to negotiate with Hamas if it renounced violence. Fewer than one-third, or 29%, said Israel should cut off all contacts with the Palestinian Authority and resume targeted killings of Hamas leaders if it failed to renounce violence.

In line with the country’s tradition of lively public debate, people here appeared to be genuinely grappling with the question of whether Hamas, if solely out of self-interest, had already begun to change. With a trademark Israeli mix of irreverence and complete seriousness, a political blog on the Haaretz newspaper’s website posed the question: “Does Hamas still want you dead?”

Commentators have noted that the group’s election platform -- unlike its founding charter -- did not call for Israel’s destruction, and they point to a yearlong hiatus in suicide bombings that Hamas, with little fanfare, has already taken.

Israelis and Palestinians, for all their years of enmity, often display an intimate knowledge of one another’s societies. Perhaps for that reason, Israelis are better able than those in the outside world to understand the degree to which Palestinians chafed under the pervasive corruption of Fatah -- and thus to read Hamas’ victory as a collective expression of disgust and anger with the status quo rather than a call to arms.

“Not all Israelis were shocked. They didn’t expect exactly this kind of major change within the Palestinian society, but not all were shocked,” said Gabriel Sheffer, a political science professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. “Many people tend to look at it in a quite rational way.”

Events in the Middle East tend to have a cyclical quality, and many here are already viewing the ascension of Hamas through the prism of history.

Ziad abu Ziad, a Fatah member of the outgoing Palestinian parliament who has long been involved in negotiations between the two sides, recalled witnessing the first meeting of two late leaders: Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, whose Palestine Liberation Organization had carried out hijackings, shootings and hostage-taking to press the demand for statehood.

“It was evident from looking at Rabin that he simply couldn’t believe he was sitting down with Arafat,” Abu Ziad said. “I also saw subsequent meetings in which the two were sitting comfortably together, truly trying to reach something.”

And as sometimes happens here, pragmatism on both sides could prove the most powerful force.

“It is customary to say that peace is made with enemies,” political commentator Nahum Barnea wrote in Yediot. “The truth is that peace is made with partners. With enemies, one makes a truce. That is what should happen with Hamas.”


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