Exactly two weeks before the scheduled Palestinian Legislative elections, and a day after both Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom sounded off on the issue, a European diplomat heavily involved in the elections phoned Wednesday with a simple question: "What is Israel's policy on the elections in Jerusalem?" The official was confused by the mixed signals and contradictory statements emerging from Jerusalem over whether east Jerusalem Arabs could vote - as they did in 2005 and 1996 - in post offices in the city. His confusion was well-founded. Consider the following:
On December 19, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's top adviser, Dov Weisglass, told the head of an EU team here to monitor the elections, and that Israel would not let east Jerusalem Arabs vote in the city because of Hamas's involvement in the polls.
On December 21, senior Foreign Ministry officials told The Jerusalem Post that this policy was not final, and that east Jerusalem Arabs would be able to vote.
On Sunday, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told the cabinet that east Jerusalem Arabs would be voting outside of Jerusalem, not inside it.
On Tuesday, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said they could vote in east Jerusalem post offices, as well as just outside the city.
The murkiness over this policy reflected the toll that the dual traumas of a Knesset campaign and Sharon's stroke have had on Israeli policy and policy-making over the last few weeks.
According to one assessment in the Foreign Ministry, Weisglass's initial nixing of the post office idea was the result of Sharon's concern that Jerusalem was becoming a hot issue in the campaign - and the prime minister had to present himself as the defender of a unified capital.
Some senior Foreign Ministry officials initially opposed the policy Weisglass articulated, saying that Israel should allow the Palestinians to conduct their elections as they did in 2005 and 1996, when east Jerusalem Arab were able to vote in the post offices.
This was also a point of view advocated by Mofaz, who made a pledge to this effect during a visit to Washington in November. Since so few Palestinians actually vote in this manner (1,200 in east Jerusalem in the 2005 balloting for PA president), this school of thought argued that the cost of not allowing it - and possibly being blamed for pushing off the Palestinian elections - outweighed the benefit of taking a principled stand against giving any legitimacy to Hamas in Israel's capital.
Shalom - who has been adamantly opposed to Hamas participation in the elections since launching a campaign against it in the springtime - overruled those in his ministry in favor of allowing voting in east Jerusalem post offices. Shalom, also in a campaign mode, and with an acute political understanding of the role Jerusalem could play in the upcoming Israeli election, told the cabinet Sunday that the Arabs of east Jerusalem would vote just outside the capital in places like Abu Dis or Azariya.
The complicated issue was initially to be settled last week in Sharon's office after the planned visit of senior US officials Elliott Abrams and David Welch. But then Sharon's stroke intervened, the two US envoys postponed their trip by a week, and no decision was taken.
It was time, therefore, for the second trauma of the last few weeks - Sharon's illness - to impact on this decision.
Sharon's stroke thrust Ehud Olmert into the role of acting prime minister, and the government - quite abruptly - became a transitional one. During transitional periods, decision-making lines are not so neatly drawn: Who, for instance, has the authority to speak for the government? Mofaz, on Tuesday, thought he did, and told reporters that voting would be allowed in Jerusalem. Shalom, now in a different party, had no problem shortly afterward contradicting him. Remember, while these two ministers sit in the same government (at least for now), they are in two different parties and contesting an election.
Olmert, apparently concerned that Mofaz overstepped his authority, chimed in and told Condoleezza Rice - probably as confused as the rest of us - that the final decision would be made at this Sunday's cabinet meting.
At the same time, however, he broadly hinted that Mofaz had got it right. Indeed, Olmert himself was quoted in the Arab press last month saying that the voting should be conducted in these elections just as it had been in the past.
All this confusion, meanwhile, seemed an apt denouement to an Israeli policy on Hamas participation in the balloting that itself has proven extremely pliable.
Israel, in some 10 months, has gone from saying that Hamas was a terrorist organization bent on Israel's destruction that could not take part in the elections, to the cabinet's expected approval Sunday of some Palestinian voting in the capital despite Hamas's participation.
This policy metamorphosis demonstrates the limits of Israeli diplomacy, and how wanting something really badly - even presenting cogent arguments and lobbying intensively - does not necessarily make it so.
"It is inconceivable that an armed group, with a covenant full of hatred, can participate in the elections," Sharon said at a November cabinet meeting. But over the last few moths the inconceivable became very conceivable, because the international community took a unified position that Israel - for a variety of reasons - was not willing to ignore.
Israel climbed up a high tree in announcing that Hamas could not participate, only to be forced down by the US and Europeans who - although they believe theoretically that terrorists should not take part in a democratic election - were willing to make an exception "just this once."
Not having armed terrorist organizations take part in the democratic process was the ultimate goal, they argued, but the PA democracy was in its infancy, and nothing must be done to harm its development. Banning Hamas from the election, they reasoned, would do just that. So let Hamas run, and then afterward PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas would either disarm it, or it would disarm itself. Promise.
Israel's campaign against Hamas participation in the elections began in April, at a time when these elections were set to take place in July, just before disengagement from Gaza. (The elections were postponed.) Shalom, in meetings with various leaders from Egypt's Hosni Mubarak to Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Britain's Jack Straw, argued that Hamas should not be allowed to take part.
This remained policy until September, after disengagement, when Sharon went to the United Nations and fine-tuned this policy a bit.
Gaza had changed things, he told journalists and the leaders he met. Israel was no longer in Gaza and could not interfere in the elections there, but it still had sway over what happened in the West Bank and would not coordinate with the PA in holding elections there.
Sharon was careful not to spell out exactly what he meant, but the implication was that Israel would not - as it did in the '96 and '05 Palestinian elections - take any steps to facilitate the voting, such as lifting roadblocks, withdrawing from the West Bank cities on election day, or allow balloting in Jerusalem.
Mofaz altered the policy a bit further in November, when, during a meeting in Washington with Rice, that Israel would "not interfere" with the elections. What this meant, diplomatic officials said at the time, was that while Israel would indeed lift roadblocks and withdraw somewhat from the Palestinian cities on election day, it would not stop arresting or pursuing Hamas activists simply because they were, for example, somehow involved in election activities.
Which, indeed, remains the country's policy today - at least as of this writing.
THIS ENTIRE saga has raised the question of whether Israel erred in charting a policy on Hamas's participation in the elections that it was unable, or unwilling, to stick with. One senior foreign policy official, who favored letting Palestinians vote in east Jerusalem as in the past, doesn't think so, and recommended taking a broader look before judging policy.
The real question would be how the US approached Hamas after the elections, he said, and whether it would begin dealing with the terrorist group once it became part of the Palestinian political scenery.
According to this official, the US - and the EU, for that matter - have said that they would not have contact with Hamas after the elections unless it dismantled and revoked its charter calling for Israel's destruction.
Israel's staunch opposition to Hamas's participation in the election - opposition that has not been able to affect the reality on the ground - helped shape this stated policy, he said, arguing that the US was forced to make commitments about what its policy would be after the election, in order to get Israel to change its pre-election position.
Which is great - unless, of course - US policy on Hamas after the election proves as elastic as Israel's policy on Hamas involvement in the elections was beforehand.