What Now?

When the militant group Hamas swept to victory in last week’s Palestinian elections, it forced all key players to reassess their positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, creating widespread uncertainty about the future. A number of fundamental questions have emerged:

Will Hamas in its power role moderate its radical positions or put Palestinian society on a collision course with Israel and the Western world?

This is the central question. There will be enormous pressure on Hamas to adopt a more pragmatic line. The European Union, which provides up to 90 percent of international aid to the Palestinians, is threatening to suspend its economic support unless Hamas recognizes Israel’s right to exist and renounces violence, and the United States appears poised to do the same.

In the short term, cutting off these funds could leave a Hamas government unable to pay the salaries of 155,000 Palestinian civil servants, including the 30,000-strong Palestinian Authority security forces. In the longer term, ambitious plans to jump-start the stalled Palestinian economy may have to be shelved, perpetuating poverty and unemployment.

A militant Hamas also will face international isolation, giving Israel the moral and diplomatic high ground for tough responses to Palestinian terror.

Israel will be able to exert tremendous diplomatic, economic and military pressure. On the diplomatic front, it won’t talk to Hamas in its present form; as to the economy, the Palestinians are dependent on Israel for electricity, the transfer of tax revenue, goods, services, work places and border crossings. In addition, if terrorism escalates, Hamas leaders could become targets.

Therefore, while it won an outright majority of 76 of the 132 seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas wants the defeated Fatah movement to stay on in government to give it a semblance of respectability vis-a-vis Israel and the international community.

Still, Hamas for now probably will refuse to moderate its ideology, which calls for Israel’s destruction. Indeed, there are strong opposing pressures on Hamas to maintain its radical line.

Iran, for example, could make up for some funds the European Union withholds — on condition that Hamas remain militant. Fidelity to its ideology and goading by other militant groups also could shunt Hamas away from moderation.

Does the Hamas victory mean the end of the dynamic toward independent Israeli and Palestinian states living side-by-side?

Not necessarily. By its very participation in the election, Hamas has been sucked into the two-state paradigm: The Palestinian Parliament holds sway in the West Bank and Gaza Strip but not over all the territory — including Israel — that Hamas claims as “Palestine.”

More imminently, the Hamas victory likely will accelerate unilateral Israeli moves to establish a clear border between Israelis and Israeli settlements on one side and Palestinians on the other.

Is Hamas uniformly radical or are there more moderate voices?

The organization’s formal position is that there can be no talks with Israel until it withdraws to its pre-1967 boundaries, divides Jerusalem and takes in vast numbers of Palestinian refugees, positions that are unacceptable to Israel. Until then, Hamas says, all contacts will be through third parties.

Behind the scenes, however, some Hamas leaders are intimating that there could be direct negotiations before then. On this score, and in general, Ismail Haniya, Hamas’ foremost candidate for prime minister, is thought to be more pragmatic than the Gaza-based party leader, Mahmoud al-Zahar.

How is the secular Fatah movement likely to respond to its loss of power?

Fatah, the movement founded by Yasser Arafat, has dominated the Palestinian nationalist movement since its inception 40 years ago. Its loss of power to the Islamic fundamentalists came as a profound shock. Fatah leaders’ initial reaction was to dismiss out-of-hand Hamas calls to participate in a national unity government on the grounds that Fatah plans to rebuild in opposition and return to power once Hamas’ approach proves unrealistic.

Fatah says it intends to hand over power peacefully, but already there has been some fighting between the two groups and some talk of using force to reverse the election result, the way the army did when Islamists were poised to win power in Algeria in 1992. A key development to watch will be whether P.A. security personnel loyal to Fatah agree to place themselves under Hamas command.

What are the likely regional consequences?

For Israel, one of the most dangerous results would be a growth of Iranian influence in the Palestinian arena. Hawks like the Likud Party’s Yuval Steinitz, chairman of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, see a tightening of an Iranian-controlled terrorist belt around Israel, with the Lebanese-based Hezbollah to the north and Hamas and other Palestinian militants in the center and south.

A lot will depend on the choice Hamas makes between Iran and the rest of the international community.

Will Hamas continue the cease-fire, or tahdia, that most Palestinian terrorist groups declared in early 2005 or will there soon be a fresh outbreak of terrorism?

The Israeli intelligence assessment is that Hamas will observe the cease-fire, at least in the short term. What happens next will depend on the long-term strategy that Hamas, with all the constraints of power, decides to adopt.

As for terrorist acts by other militants, such as Islamic Jihad, Hamas, with its radical ideology, will be in no position to condemn them.

Some Israelis are saying the advent of Hamas will make it easier for Israel to cope. There will be no more masks or double talk, analysts say, such as when the Palestinian Authority condemned terror to the outside world but did nothing to stop it. With Hamas in power, they add, Israelis are likely to be more united in fighting terrorism and to get more international support for counterterrorist activities.

What are Israel’s options?

Government policy is shaping up as the following: No talks with Hamas, insistence on the “road map” peace plan’s demands for a renunciation of terrorism and disarming of militias, consideration of further unilateral withdrawals, rapid completion of the West Bank security fence, targeting of the Islamic Jihad militia and carrot-and-stick use of Israel’s economic leverage.

The government’s initial dilemma was whether to leave open lines of communication to Hamas and transfer some $43 million in value-added tax collected by Israel for the Palestinian Authority or to set clear conditions for dialogue and transfers of funds.

After a Cabinet meeting on Sunday, acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced that the government would not hold peace talks with Hamas until it recognized Israel, renounced terrorism and accepted previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Israel also would refuse to hand tax money to the Palestinians until it was clear where the money was going, he said.

“We have no intention of transferring funds that will be used for terrorism,” Olmert declared.

Olmert and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni spoke to an array of world leaders on the phone, urging them to withhold funds and refuse to meet Hamas officials unless the organization met Israel’s minimum conditions.

Visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel was one of the first major world leaders to give the Israeli position her unqualified support. After meeting Olmert in Jerusalem on Sunday, she endorsed the three Israeli conditions: “If Hamas does not change, it would be unthinkable for the EU or for Germany bilaterally to support the P.A. government with money, as we do today,” she told waiting reporters.

EU foreign ministers meeting in Brussels echoed her position. There would be no dealing with Hamas unless the organization recognized Israel and renounced terrorism, they said. In the United States, President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States also will boycott Hamas as long as it remains committed to Israel’s destruction.

What impact is the rise of Hamas likely to have on Israeli elections?

All the main parties are trying to make political capital of the Hamas victory in the run-up to Israel’s own elections in March. Likud argues that last summer’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank showed the Palestinians that terrorism pays, and the fact that Hamas could claim that its militiamen forced Israel to leave paved the way for its election success.

On the left, Labor and Meretz claim that the Sharon government weakened Mahmoud Abbas and Fatah by ignoring them as potential peace partners, which they say contributed to Hamas’ rise.

The main argument now, though, is likely to be between the unilateralism advocated by Kadima and Labor and the Likud’s tougher approach. In elections of the recent past, Likud’s use of scare tactics and projection of strength in the face of perceived threats has been very effective.

Despite the rise of Hamas, however, Likud may find it difficult this time to dent Kadima’s lead in the polls. The governing party’s message regarding the advantages of unilateral action — the idea that Israel has the power to shape a new reality that’s best for it, regardless of who holds power on the Palestinian side — seems at least as valid now as when Fatah was in charge.


World Left Guessing on Arafat’s Future

In September 1982, an Israeli sniper in Beirut had Yasser Arafat’s head in his gunsights, and he waited for an order from Ariel Sharon, who in turn was awaiting word from Jerusalem: Kill him or set him free?

Sharon, then defense minister, soon got the order from Prime Minister Menachem Begin: Let Arafat board the boat evacuating the PLO leadership from Beirut.

More than 20 years later, Arafat is once again in Israeli sights, only this time Sharon is in Jerusalem calling the shots.

Now, after a new wave of Palestinian terrorism and Israeli retaliation, a series of contradictory statements has left the Israeli political establishment, U.S. Jews, the Bush administration and the world guessing: Will he or won’t he?

"Killing is definitely one of the options," Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Sunday, a few days after the Israeli Security Cabinet decided in principle to "remove" Arafat, calling him an obstacle to peace.

On Monday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom insisted killing most definitely was not an option under discussion. "We don’t speak about killing. We didn’t speak about it before, and we don’t speak about it today," he said.

The mixed signals have set friends of Israel here on edge, including those in the government and those in the Jewish community, said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.  

"People aren’t easy about it, they’re questioning a bit about it, and they’re waiting and seeing," Hoenlein said. He stressed that there was no sense of alarm.

Instead, he said, the feeling among Jews is: "That’s something the Israelis have to resolve there."

Repercussions have been limited in the administration and in Congress, he said. "There’s no sympathy for Arafat," Hoenlein observed.

Abraham Foxman, the national director for the Anti-Defamation League, said Bush administration officials were not taking the Israeli talk overly seriously.

"They understand Israelis are smart. They’re not about to do something that would so upset a friend and ally like the U.S.," Foxman said.

Foxman suggested the debate was a sophisticated political ploy intended to soften the blow of Israel’s real plans for Arafat.

Israel might be setting the stage for Arafat’s total isolation within his compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah, he said.

"If Israel made this decision, announced it, the world would go nuts," Foxman said. "Now, if Israel says we will hermetically isolate him, the world is likelier to say OK."

Many analysts believe that the fact that Israel is talking so much about it means it’s unlikely they are going to kill him.

"You don’t talk about something like that if you’re going to do it," said Steven Spiegel, a professor at UCLA who is associated with the Israel Policy Forum. "You just do it."

Still, Hoenlein acknowledged that Olmert’s comments had led to expressions of concern from U.S. Jewish leaders.

"People who speak to Olmert might communicate their concern about how it’s received," he said.

Widespread repercussions make U.S. Jews nervous, Foxman said, even though there is an understanding of Israel’s position.

"Some wish Israel wouldn’t do this, they see the bad press, but there’s also tremendous compassion for the anger and frustration of the Israeli public," Foxman said.

Talk of killing Arafat followed last week’s decision by Israel’s Security Cabinet to reserve the right to exile the Palestinian Authority president in the wake of two suicide attacks that claimed 15 lives.

"Israel will work to remove this obstacle in a manner, and at a time, of its choosing," the Cabinet statement said.

The United States has steadfastly opposed exile, repeatedly saying it would only give Arafat a "broader stage."

Indeed, the prospect of Arafat gaining world sympathy and directing terrorist attacks from abroad led to discussions of whether to kill him.

When Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who has said that refraining from exiling Arafat was a historic error, recently raised the prospect of killing the Palestinian leader in a Cabinet meeting, Sharon silenced him.

At the last minute, Mofaz canceled a U.S. visit scheduled for this week in which he was expected to seek a green light from the Bush administration for Arafat’s exile.

Domestic political posturing also explains much of the chest-thumping over removing Arafat from power, whether through exile or execution.

Israelis are overwhelmingly frustrated at the recent tide of terror, and polls show a majority favor Arafat’s exile.

"It’s a classic example of domestic needs clashing with international political demands," said Spiegel, whose U.S.-based group supports peace initiatives in the Middle East. "They thought talking about it would assuage domestic anger, but all it has done is rally support for Arafat."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell blamed political pandering for the talk. "There are many people in Israeli political life who make statements," he said on Fox News on Sunday.

Still, he was rattled. "I don’t think it was helpful," Powell said. "The consequences would not be good ones. I think you can anticipate that there would be rage throughout the Arab world, the Muslim world and in many other parts of the world."

The international community was already unsettled over the unraveling of the "road map" peace plan, and the U.N. Security Council convened this week to discuss a Syrian-proposed resolution that would oppose any action against Arafat.

The United States vetoed the resolution on Tuesday.

Whatever the seriousness of the threats against Arafat, Sharon is keeping friends and foes off guard — a strategy not new to the former warrior.

JTA correspondents Gil Sedan and Dan Baron in Israel contributed to this report.