WASHINGTON — Despite intense efforts by the Bush administration to broker a temporary cease-fire agreement between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the extremist Hamas organization, officials on all sides are making it plain that Palestinian visions of the cease-fire differ drastically — and perhaps dangerously — from Israeli and American views.
The United States has been orchestrating an elaborate, five-way cease-fire negotiation in recent weeks, cajoling Israel to talk to the Palestinian Authority about handing over security responsibility in Gaza and Bethlehem, while the P.A. talks separately to Hamas about a unilateral halt to attacks on Israel, in a negotiation mediated by Egypt. The common goal, at least for the United States, Israel and the P.A., is obtaining quiet. But understandings differ radically as to the purpose of the lull.
Israel and the Bush administration want the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and his aides to use the lull as an interlude for consolidating power, after which they expect him to crack down on Hamas. Abu Mazen, however, has said he has no intention of cracking down. Instead, he has said on several occasions, he hopes to use the cease-fire as a first stage toward domesticating Hamas, leading to a power-sharing arrangement at the helm of the budding Palestinian state.
Publicly, the administration is skeptical of the trustworthiness of such an intra-Palestinian cease-fire and condemns Hamas in the strongest possible terms as a terrorist organization that strives to undermine peace efforts. In private, however, the administration has been vigorously pressing Abu Mazen to reach such an agreement with Hamas. Washington has encouraged the Egyptian government’s mediation of the negotiations, and pressured Israel to accept it. The administration has also pressed hard for Israel to make the chief concession asked of it: halting assassination attempts against Palestinian terrorist suspects in the West Bank and Gaza.
“At the moment, they know that a cease-fire is the only feasible result they can get out of Abu Mazen,” a former American diplomat with close contacts to the administration said of President Bush and his aides. “Although the president strongly dislikes the idea of negotiating with terrorists, he now understands that this is the only thing you can do at the moment.”
According to a purported protocol of a meeting between Abu Mazen and opposing Palestinian factions, published this week in the Israeli daily Ha’aretz, Bush “exploded with anger” when Abu Mazen told him he is trying to reach an agreement with Hamas and other opposition factions. The Ha’aretz report quotes Abu Mazen as telling his Palestinian interlocutors that when he explained to Bush at the Sharm al-Sheikh summit two weeks ago that he is negotiating with the Palestinian militants, Bush replied: “There cannot be an agreement with terrorists.” Later, according to the report, Bush told Abu Mazen that “a cease-fire is not the whole story,” apparently meaning that the lull will have to be followed by a disarmament effort, and perhaps more.
Earlier this week, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher clarified the administration’s position on the issue of a cease-fire. “The idea of a cease-fire as a step along the way is a good one,” Boucher said. “But ultimately it has to lead to that kind of dismantlement that the president talked about, denying them the ability to carry out attacks, because Hamas is clearly an obstacle to peace.”
Later, Secretary of State Colin Powell, at a joint press conference with Abu Mazen in Jericho, spoke even more harshly of Hamas. “Right now, Hamas is committed to terror and celebrates the terrorist attacks we are seeing,” Powell said. “And it is no longer possible to separate one part of Hamas out from another part of Hamas.”
Despite American pressure, Israel’s government is skeptical of the emerging deal. Until last week, it rejected the idea of a cease-fire outright, warning that an agreement with Hamas is written in sand, that it only gives the violent militants a chance to gain power, and that Israel cannot make concessions when it comes to its war on terrorism.
While senior Israeli security officials still oppose accepting a cease-fire, Israel’s political leadership, under American pressure, is accepting the idea as an interim goal, and is willing to make several commitments on curtailing assassination attempts during a cease-fire period.
Statements by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom illustrate the change. Last week, Shalom said that “a cease-fire is a ticking bomb,” using the phrase Israel coined to justify its use of targeted killings, and “therefore, we cannot agree to it.” This week, however, Shalom said that Israel might be able to accept a cease-fire as a “first step,” though not as a long-term measure. In the long run, Israel expects the P.A. to fight Hamas and dismantle it. Shalom added that Israel rejects any Palestinian cease-fire that is limited to civilians living within Israel’s pre-1967 border, and expects a cessation of attacks on Israeli soldiers and on Israeli civilians in the territories.
But while Washington and Jerusalem are talking about dismantling Hamas and not making a distinction between the military and the political arms of the militant Islamic organization, Abu Mazen says he does not plan a military crackdown on Hamas. Furthermore, Abu Mazen, who publicly does not talk about a hudna , or a cease-fire, but about an “agreement” of national unity, says he would like to use it to transform Hamas.
An aide to Abu Mazen, Diana Buttu, legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization’s negotiations affairs department, told the Forward in Washington that Abu Mazen and his minister of internal security, Mohammed Dahlan, believe that they can peacefully convince Hamas to give up its weapons voluntarily as a step toward forging a Palestinian national unity leadership that includes Hamas.
According to Arab diplomats in Washington, the campaign to transform Hamas into a political organ is assisted by Egyptian diplomats in Cairo, who this week held ongoing talks with Hamas’s diaspora leadership to help obtain a cease-fire. One Arab diplomat said that Israel and the United States are “mistaken” in expecting Abu Mazen to initiate a Palestinian “civil war” to crush Hamas.
“His strategy is to weaken Hamas over a long period of time,” the diplomat said of Abu Mazen, “while he strengthens his security and political infrastructure. It involves risks, but that is the only way this can work.”