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Defense Chief Calls for Second Disengagement

TEL AVIV — Barely 48 hours after the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian parliamentary elections — a victory that no Israeli intelligence agency foresaw — the government in Jerusalem had replaced its initial shock with a “wait and see” attitude. The prevailing tone was that in the end, something good might come out of the first-ever election of an ultra-religious Islamic movement to head an Arab government.

“Now they are responsible,” Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told the Forward this week. “We have yet to see how they respond.”

But even as they sought to show poise and restraint, Israel’s top officials were confused and divided over the actual meaning of the Hamas landslide. Before the vote, most experts had predicted a narrow win for Fatah, Israel’s uncomfortable partner in the Oslo Accords signed a dozen years ago. Dan Halutz, the army’s chief of staff, had flatly predicted a Fatah victory just a day before the election. But Hamas, which rejects the Oslo Accords and refuses to recognize Israel, won handily, gaining 76 seats out of 132 in the Palestinian parliament.

It remains unclear who will hold real power. Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader, remains chairman of the Palestinian Authority, a post he won in a separate election last year and in which he has three years left to serve. As chairman, Abbas has exclusive control over foreign affairs. But a Hamas-led Cabinet could be a major obstacle. Amid furious speculation over Hamas intentions — power sharing with Fatah, naming a government of technocrats, or simply taking the reins and risking international isolation — Hamas leaders were sending out sharply conflicting messages this week.

For Mofaz, the possibility of a stalemate reinforces the need for a “second disengagement” — a withdrawal from broad swaths of territory in Judea and Samaria, leaving them to Palestinian control while the main settlements blocs remain under Israeli control, protected by the security fence. Such a border, he believes, would enable Israel to enjoy maximum security as it waits for a Palestinian partner to emerge. “We have to take our destiny into our own hands,” he told the Forward. “Security-wise, things may be relatively quiet until the dust settles. But I doubt whether there will be someone to negotiate an agreement with in the near future.”

Negotiations have long been an awkward topic for Israelis, and they became more awkward last week. Formally, Israel is committed to President Bush’s road map, which calls for peace talks leading to Israeli withdrawals, Palestinian statehood and an end to violence. In practice Jerusalem lost faith five years ago in the P.A.’s willingness or ability to end terrorism, and has refused to resume talks until it does so. The election of Hamas, by putting the Palestinian Authority in the hands of a party that actively favors terrorism and opposes any peace agreement, appears to bring further talk of negotiations to a standstill.

Ariel Sharon turned the stalemate on its head last summer by withdrawing from Gaza unilaterally, allowing Israel to separate from the Palestinians without negotiating. His new Kadima (“Forward”) party, formed after he left the Likud Party last fall, has soared in the polls by adopting this formula.

Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who took the helm after Sharon suffered a stroke a month ago, continued this week to voice public support for the road map, but he reiterated that Israel would not negotiate with Hamas as long as it operates terrorist networks and refuses to recognize Israel. Sources close to Olmert insist that he would prefer a negotiated agreement to unilateral moves. But he said last month that he would consider a second unilateral disengagement if talks are impossible. That now seems inevitable .

Last month, seemingly preparing the ground for a new pullback, Olmert ordered the army and police to begin evicting groups of Jewish settlers who had been squatting illegally for years without official interference at several spots in the West Bank. One of those groups, living in an Arab market in Hebron since 2001 despite court orders to vacate, withdrew voluntarily this week.

Another settler group was evacuated this week from illegally built houses in the hilltop outpost of Amona. Police met fierce resistance from thousands of protesters, including three right-wing lawmakers, who fought back with sticks and cinder blocks. More than 200 troops and protesters were wounded, one seriously, in the most serious confrontation yet between between settlers and the government.

Olmert is playing a delicate political balancing game. His opponents on the right are set to use Hamas against him in their electoral campaign. After an initial campaign bombed — it showed Olmert’s face next to the inscription “Kadima [‘forward’] to the 1967 borders” — Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud unveiled a new campaign featuring the slogan “Strong Against Hamas.” Likud strategists hope the prospect of new withdrawals will help them paint Olmert as weak.

So far, there are few signs that the tough talk is swaying voters. A poll last week showed a plurality of Israelis actually favoring talks with a Hamas-led P.A. Kadima, which this week unveiled its long-awaited Knesset slate — made up largely of unknowns chosen for loyalty to Olmert — appears to be holding its strong lead as the March 28 Israeli election nears, with just over one-third of the vote.

It appears unlikely that voters will be greatly influenced by the Palestinian election. Israelis have grown used to living without a Palestinian negotiating partner, having heard from successive prime ministers since 2000 that there was no one to talk to. Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami summed up the general mood this week when he told Israel Radio that “a veil has been lifted” by the Hamas victory. “Up until now, we didn’t negotiate with Abbas because he did nothing against terror, and the terrorists held no responsibility.” Now, with Hamas in power, those terrorists may have to take responsibility — or be held accountable.

At the same time, though, there is little taste for going on the offensive. Even Netanyahu, aware of the prevailing mood, wasn’t speaking of military operations against Hamas. The public wants quiet, and hardly cares what happens on the Palestinian side.

Indeed, the only thing likely to shift the public mood would be a large-scale wave of terrorist attacks. But at least in the first days after the Palestinian elections, most intelligence sources — while chastened by their failure to predict the outcome — seemed to agree with Mofaz that such an attack is improbable.


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