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In Truce, an Israeli Deal With Hamas

Israel reached a cease-fire agreement last weekend with the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. Despite widespread skepticism, it’s been the cause of intense if cautious optimism on the center and left of the political spectrum. The right is furious. The military is holding its breath.

Why the skepticism? First, this is not a general truce. For the moment, it is an order to cease shooting on the Gaza front. There was no agreement to cease Palestinian weapons smuggling, or to halt the buildup of Hamas’s military force, or to stop Israeli military activity in the West Bank. The sides are simply trying to hold fire and cool the atmosphere in the South, in order to explore whether it’s at all possible to move forward onto a diplomatic track. It is all shaky, fragile and liable to collapse in an instant.

Formally it is an agreement between Israel and Abbas, reached through a process of dialogue that went on for weeks and came to fruition Saturday night. In practical terms, it is an agreement between Israel and Hamas.

And yet, the celebration is not entirely misplaced. Out of the burning ocean of hostility that surrounds us, the tip of a tip of an iceberg appeared just after the Sabbath in the form of a mutual agreement to hold fire.

The anger is at the government’s helplessness. After the June 25 kidnapping of Gilad Shalit, after this past summer’s Lebanon war, after the failure to solve the Qassam rocket barrage of the past few weeks, Israel has been forced into a situation in which it is finally ready to peek at a diplomatic plan presented by Hamas. The plan is similar to the one that Hamas offered more than five months ago, in an effort to stave off collapse of its regime.

Israel’s consent effectively represents a substantive change in policy toward the Hamas government: from a policy of confrontation and elimination to a policy of backdoor dialogue and recognition. It appears unlikely that Israel’s Cabinet ever took a decision on changing policy. Despite the agreement’s huge security implications, the office of the defense minister was left out of the loop and was updated only at a certain point along the way.

Egypt’s powerful intelligence minister, Omar Suleiman, was set to arrive in Israel this week, after two postponements, bringing Olmert a copy of the agreements negotiated with Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’s Damascus-based top leader. He was also to hand over a list of Israeli gestures.

It was during America’s Thanksgiving week, once it was clear that the four layers were acceptable both to Hamas and to Israel, that the Egyptians invited Meshaal to Cairo. Up to then he had been asking to come, and Egypt refused. Only once it was clear that he would stand behind the understandings did he receive a green light to come and accept the honorary title of the indispensable man.

On Saturday night, after Meshaal called from Cairo to give his people in Gaza the go-ahead to proceed to the first stage, Abbas closed the deal with Olmert.

The cease-fire is, as noted, just the tip of the iceberg: the first stage in the first chapter of a process intended to bring some normalcy to the territories. Below the surface is a package of arrangements in four stages, each dependent on the others. The stages are to unfold, one after the other, over a period of several months — on condition that each step proceeds as planned.

The first stage involves stabilizing the situation, holding fire and building mutual trust. When Hamas first spoke of a cease-fire with Israel five months ago, it indicated that it would need two to three weeks to control the fire of the small, militant groups allied with it, mainly the Popular Resistance Committees, Islamic Jihad and Fatah breakaways. The deployment last weekend of thousands of Palestinian security personnel in the rocket-launching zones may mean that Hamas can shorten the lag.

In informal talks, Palestinians have indicated that they expect Israel, parallel to withdrawing troops from Gaza, to implement certain trust-building gestures in the West Bank. These include removing checkpoints and reducing military sweeps and arrests. Israel currently conducts anywhere from 130 to 180 arrests per week in the West Bank. Most involve Hamas activists trying to create a military force in the West Bank, similar to the one being built in Gaza. Hamas would be very happy, security officials say, if Israel were to reduce the pressure on its people in return for quiet on the Qassam front.

The Palestinians expect that within the next few weeks, Israel will release Hamas parliament members now in detention. This is the second stage.

The third stage: release of Shalit in return for Palestinian security prisoners. In the past three weeks — after five months with virtually no movement — there has been sudden, substantive progress in talks over Shalit’s release. The number of prisoners demanded by Hamas is still far from the number offered by Israel, but the gap is narrowing. There’s also a narrowing of positions on the terms of the release. There is no agreement yet on the names of those to be freed, nor even on who will draft the list.

The terms of release could be touchy. Insiders say that the whole prisoner issue could run aground if Israel seeks to present the security prisoners’ release as a gesture to Abbas in order to strengthen him on the Palestinian street. Hamas has no interest in giving Abbas the credit.

Afwter settlement of the Shalit issue comes the fourth stage: establishment of a Palestinian unity government or “Cabinet of experts.” Hamas hopes to reap big rewards here, not just continued rule through a Hamas-led parliament and a majority of ministers but also opening the spigots of cash that will let it prove to the public and the world that it can govern. Hamas’s top interest today is gaining legitimacy for its government.

Hamas and Fatah have agreed largely on the ministries each side will get. A few portfolios are still in dispute, including foreign affairs and information, which are designated for Fatah, and education and welfare, designated for Hamas. These disputes are personal: which individuals will get the jobs. A more substantive dispute involves a fifth portfolio: the Ministry of Interior, which controls the security forces. Hamas appears unwilling to yield control of the interior, suggesting that it’s not prepared to forgo the buildup of its own military force.

On weapons smuggling, Hamas is offering a quid pro quo: If we must give up the option of armed confrontation in the future, we want to ensure that Israel also gives up this option. In effect, Hamas has no interest in ending the smuggling. From Hamas’s point of view, a cease-fire ideally means breathing space to continue its buildup.

Military officials complain that the office of the defense minister was an extremely junior partner in this very crucial military-diplomatic process, which percolated over a period of weeks. And when the office of the defense minister is weak, the ability of the army to influence events is weakened. Not surprisingly, the army brass is extremely skeptical about the cease-fire and the whole process leading up to it. They see the deal as leading to a new south Lebanon in Gaza.

In a discussion last Sunday in the defense minister’s office, security officials brought up their fears of continued buildup and weapons smuggling under the cover of the cease-fire. The political officials in the room offered a blunt retort: And when there wasn’t a cease-fire, there was no smuggling?

This article first appeared in the November 26 issue of Yediot Aharonot. Reprinted by permission of the author. Translated by J.J. Goldberg.

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