Behind Tough Talk, Israel Torn on Hamas

Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, visiting Cairo this week, refused to confirm or deny a controversial New York Times report that the United States and Israel were discussing ways to destabilize the Palestinian government and force new elections. “Stories break every morning,” Mofaz told reporters after his February 14 meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “I can’t relate to all of them.”

Mofaz’s non-reply easily could be read as diplomatic waffling. Israel is deeply alarmed by the victory of the Islamic militant group Hamas in last month’s Palestinian elections, and wants urgently to blunt its effect. But the Times report embarrassed Washington, which champions Arab democracy, and prompted an immediate, emphatic American denial, which Israel couldn’t contradict. As for Mubarak, he reportedly told Mofaz privately that morning that Egypt was pressing Hamas to recognize Israel, but hours later he told an interviewer that Egypt was doing no such thing. Caught between diplomatic tact and distaste for Hamas, Mofaz chose silence.

However, the mixed messages reflect a deeper confusion among policymakers following the victory of Hamas, which espouses terrorism and vows to destroy Israel.

The official Israeli line is unyielding. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared this week that once the new Palestinian parliament is sworn in — the ceremony was scheduled for February 18 — Israel would consider Hamas to be in power. That would trigger a severing of Israeli contact with the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Israel would stop handing over taxes it collects for the Palestinians, estimated at more than $50 million per month. Travel restrictions in the territories would prevent Hamas representatives from reaching legislative sessions, making Palestinians self-rule more elusive than ever. The goal, Israeli officials make plain, is to discredit Hamas leadership and force it from power.

Unofficially, however, many Israeli officials have their doubts. In private conversations Mofaz has questioned the likelihood of Hamas losing its grip on political power. A crackdown could backfire and cause Palestinians to close ranks.

Other officials warn of unintended consequences when American or Israeli-controlled money stops arriving. One is a deepening of the chaos in the West Bank and Gaza as economic conditions deteriorate — about one-third of all employed Palestinians work for the P.A. That could spur a return to terrorism, which has been at a low ebb since Hamas approved a cease-fire a year ago.

The other possible consequence is an influx of new money from Iran and Arab countries, increasing radical influence and creating financial pressures for renewed terrorism.

The quiet debate among Israeli policymakers does not take place in a vacuum. Israel itself is in the heat of an election campaign. As the March 28 balloting nears, Hamas provides an easy target for the main parties. Likud was the first party to build a campaign around fear of Hamas — commercials released right after the Palestinian elections showed Benjamin Netanyahu over the caption “strong against Hamas” — but it was embarrassed by a poor public response. Still, declarations of toughness against Hamas have become an obligatory part of every candidate’s repertoire.

As a result, a campaign that could have focused debate on the crucial question of further unilateral withdrawal — Labor is in favor, Likud is against and Olmert, without saying it outright, hints broadly that he intends a new pullout — has become a unity rally in the face of the common foe.

Further complicating Israeli deliberations is the planned visit of Hamas leaders to Russia later this month for talks with President Vladimir Putin. Israelis were furious at Putin when he issued his invitation to the Hamas leaders last week. The Russian president was accused in campaign speeches and screaming headlines of undermining the common front Israel was building against Hamas in the United States and Europe.

As of last week, the West had closed ranks in refusing to deal with Hamas unless it first recognized Israel and renounced terrorism. Putin’s invitation breached the dike. He received prompt endorsement from France and Turkey, to Israel’s displeasure.

The furor quickly died down, however, when mixed signals began emerging from Washington. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that Putin should use the visit to pressure Hamas. That was interpreted in Jerusalem as a de-facto green light for the meeting itself.

In part, the uncertainty of Israel’s message reflects mixed signals coming from the Israeli public. Voters, it appears, are far more pragmatic — or despairing, depending on one’s viewpoint — than their leaders. Polls show that as much as 50% of the public believes Israel eventually will, or should, talk to Hamas. The poll numbers don’t show whether the public’s acceptance of talks with Hamas stems from a belief that the Islamic movement could change after assuming power or from the conviction that it couldn’t be much worse than the defeated Fatah.

For all these reasons, Israel’s firm stand against Hamas seems, so far, to be more rhetorical than active. Right after the Hamas victory Israel launched a major offensive of targeted killings, assassinating more than a dozen terrorist operatives within a few days. But none of those assassinated were Hamas operatives; all were identified with the smaller Islamic Jihad or cells of the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Brigades. Islamic Jihad replied with a series of rocket attacks that came dangerously close to a power station in Ashkelon, sparking fears of a major escalation.

Hamas, however, remains largely inactive on the terrorism front. Its leaders speak openly of a long-term hudna, or Islamic cease-fire — actual peace with Israel is considered impossible for religious reasons — in return for Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders. The stand echoes a parallel feeling among Israelis; both sides seem to believe that peace is beyond reach for now, and the best that can be hoped for is a long-term, interim agreement.

The only political leader calling right now for immediate action — the precise nature is not clear — is Netanyahu. The Likud leader has spoken in recent days of “seizing” territories in the West Bank, moving the security fence deeper into the West Bank and taking over unpopulated ground in the Judean Desert.

But Netanyahu’s proposals have gotten a cold reception from the public, which appears to view them as impractical and politically motivated. Judging from daily polls, the talk hasn’t budged voters from the views they held a month ago. As of mid-week, Olmert’s Kadima party was still hovering around 40 seats in the Knesset, with Labor at 20 to 22 seats and Likud far behind at 15 to 17.

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Behind Tough Talk, Israel Torn on Hamas

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