(photo credit: AP [file])
On January 9, 2009 Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's political career is scheduled to come to an end. After completing a three-year term and in line with PA legislation, the 73-year-old Abbas is set to leave the Mukata in Ramallah and return to civilian life.
The question that is troubling the defense establishment is what happens the day after. Who becomes the Palestinian leader? What happens to the peace negotiations?
At the moment there are no clear answers, but with Abbas bound by his people's constitution, he may not have a choice but to step down in four months.
According to the PA constitution, the next in line to succeed him is Palestinian Legislative Council Speaker Abdel Aziz Dweik. The only problem is that Dweik is a senior member of Hamas and has been sitting in an Israeli jail cell since August 2006.
The next in line - Ahmed Baher, the deputy speaker - is no better. He is also a member of Hamas and lives in the Gaza Strip.
The ramifications of Baher's potential appointment are frightening for Israel and particularly for Yuval Diskin, head of the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), who has begun warning the cabinet, the US and the European Union of this "looming threat."
If a Hamas member becomes president of the PA, Israel will find itself in a quandary, mainly since its official policy is not to speak to any member of the terror group. What will happen when issues arise - as they do numerous times a day - that require Israel to coordinate with the PA? Now the entire PA is Hamas.
Abbas is aware of this problem, but for the time being he does not have a legal solution. One possibility is that he will be able to reach an agreement with Hamas over the next four months to extend his term by at least another year. Predictions in Jerusalem are that the chances of this happening are slim, since Hamas will make its own demands in return - such as the opening of the Rafah crossing and permission to bring more money into Gaza to solidify its regime.
The second possibility is for Abbas to declare Gaza a "rebellious province" and as a result dissolve the cabinet, establish an emergency government led by current Prime Minister Salaam Fayad and then hold elections in four months. But this is risky. While the Israeli intelligence community believes Fatah is more popular than Hamas on the Palestinian street, it is not sure that Abbas will be able to translate that popularity into votes.
The timing of when this will happen can also not be ignored. Israel's political situation is unclear, too, and in January the country could be just after or right before general elections. The US president-elect will also be waiting to take office. Bottom line - complete diplomatic chaos.
There are also concerns that political instability in the PA will escalate tensions between Fatah and Hamas and possibly lead to violence in the West Bank. Gaza is of less concern since Fatah is basically nonexistent there in the wake of Hamas's coup in June 2007.
Due to the IDF's presence in the West Bank, Hamas will likely not be able to overthrow Fatah, but it could launch attacks against its offices or even try to assassinate some of its senior leaders. Hamas is already itching to attack Fatah in response to Fayad's recent crackdown on its charities and welfare institutions in the West Bank.
Abbas's political future is not just vital for the peace process but also has great implications on the continued captivity of kidnapped soldier Gilad Schalit. A crisis in the PA will likely stall his release indefinitely and for this reason the Egyptians told Defense Minister Ehud Barak last week that they would like to complete the swap by the end of the year.
At the moment, the negotiations are stuck. Not because of Israel but because Hamas believes that as long as it holds Schalit Israel will not launch a major operation in the Gaza Strip and will eventually agree to open all of the crossings, including the Rafah crossing into Egypt.
Contrary to recent media reports, Hamas is demanding the release of 1,400 Palestinian prisoners. It has so far provided Israel with a list of 450 names, including some of the deadliest terrorists being held.
Israel has several options. It can give in fully to Hamas's demands, which is what the Schalit family is asking Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to do. The chances of this happening however are small, particularly in light of the fierce opposition by the IDF and even more so the Shin Bet.
A second option is to try to free Schalit in a military operation, but such an operation is regarded as having little prospect of bringing out Schalit alive.
The third option is to break the cease-fire, strike at Hamas targets and assassinate Hamas officials until the group caves in and eases its demands. This possibility is also deemed unlikely since Israel still prefers to forestall the believed-to-be inevitable clash with the terror group as long as it can.
In the end, Israel will likely reach a deal with Hamas, as it did with Hizbullah in July for the bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.
Egypt is pushing both sides to reach that deal as soon as possible and is also pressuring Hamas to ease its demands. Vice Prime Minister Haim Ramon's committee has already approved 70 prisoners on Hamas's list and is now working to ease the criteria of "blood on hands."
The Shin Bet is opposed to releasing any of the hard-core prisoners to the West Bank. If a deal is reached, Diskin has told the cabinet he will demand that the prisoners be released only to Gaza or abroad without any chance of their ever returning to the West Bank. The reason for this is the fear that an influx of hundreds of terrorists to the West Bank would be costly in Israeli lives.
The fear is well-grounded: A research paper prepared recently in the defense establishment found that 45 percent of prisoners released in the 1985 Jibril deal and the 2004 swap with Hizbullah returned to terror activity - and close to 70% of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners released returned to their former terror cells.
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