When Prime Minister Ariel Sharon made his dramatic break from Likud, he framed the mission of his new Kadima party very clearly.
"[We will] lay the foundation for a peaceful arrangement in which we will determine the final borders of the state, while insisting that terror organizations are dismantled," he said on that November evening.
Four months later, Sharon is laying incapacitated in a hospital bed, and Hamas is poised to form the first democratically elected Palestinian government. Yet more than ever, the coming Israeli election has become a referendum on the future borders of the state and how best to achieve them.
By now, everyone is familiar with the three preconditions the government, led by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, has set on Hamas before it will enter talks with the terrorist organization which now leads the Palestinian Legislative Council: recognition of Israel's right to exist, disarming its military wing, and accepting all previous agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority.
In the absence of Hamas's meeting these demands, which no one really expects it to meet, each of the main three parties has put forward its plans for how next to proceed. While Likud has adopted a "don't give an inch" approach, Kadima and Labor (if all else fails) are both saying they will move to set Israel's permanent borders unilaterally - the difference between the two being where the borders will lie.
There's only one problem: Israel can call the borders "permanent" all it wants, but without agreement on that point from the people living on the other side, it will have little to no meaning, say analysts.
"One-sided steps cannot stabilize the situation," said Hebrew University political science professor emeritus Ze'ev Sternhell. "It can work for a few months, maybe for a year or two. But in a long-term, historical perspective, we cannot hope that deciding on our own can be a reasonable solution."
In other words, when the dust of the election settles, if the government that takes shape may be forced to act diplomatically. As unpalatable as it is to talk to Hamas - barring a radical makeover by the group - there are permutations on negotiating with the Palestinians that the government is liable to have to swallow.
It is important to remember, said Tel Aviv think-tank Re'ut founder and president Gidi Grinstein, that "Hamas is merely a political movement within the PA that happens to have a racist and anti-Semitic covenant. But they are just a party. The governments of Israel and the United States don't deal with parties, they deal with political entities with legitimacy."
As such, Grinstein said, Israel must clarify of whom it is making demands, and therefore with whom it is prepared to deal.
So far - and on this point the Olmert-led government is ambiguous, perhaps purposefully so - it appears that the conditions for negotiating with the Palestinians were put to the PA, which is led simultaneously by its directly elected president, Mahmoud Abbas, and a Hamas-controlled PLC. On the surface, such conditions fly in the face of the Oslo Accords, which bestow upon the PLO the title of "sole legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people in negotiations.
The government is therefore jettisoning the formality of directing its relations through the PLO in favor of the reality of conducting matters of state from here on out with the PA, which is now run by a democratically elected president and legislature, both of which can lay claim to legitimate leadership.
This new strategy, Grinstein said, has the advantage of finally putting Hamas under the international spotlight. "Hamas has always been back-seat driving the political process, impacting the political process without assuming political responsibility," he said. In placing Hamas in the front seat, Israel can challenge the group "to a series of decisions that highlight the tension between its ideology and its population."
However, the pitfall in that course of action is the less-than-final outcome.
Whereas many analysts agree that tight enough screws can persuade Hamas to maintain the ceasefire it has more or less observed for a year now, the prospect of the organization coming around to recognizing Israel and engaging in full-fledged peace talks is deemed a near impossibility.
In that sense, Israel could continue along the path Olmert has laid out for the Kadima party, whereby it consults with the settlers and by itself determines the lines to which it will withdraw for the foreseeable future, while leaving the army in place. Through dialog with the relevant international players, Olmert could achieve long-term, interim borders that the world would accept for the time being.
"Hamas is saying to the world: 'No permanent borders under my watch,' and the world is listening," Grinstein said. "The world might actually say: 'We heard you clearly, and therefore certain borders Israel deploys itself are legitimate until the Palestinian side comes around.'"
Israel, then, would have borders, but permanent they would not be.
It is for this reason that the strategy has opponents lining up on both sides of the political spectrum, saying "I told you so" about the ramifications of the first unilateral withdrawal - which the Right says rewarded terrorism and the Left says undermined Palestinian moderates.
"A ceasefire for 10 or 20 years without [the Palestinians] recognizing our borders, without recognizing Jerusalem as our capital or dealing with refugees - this is the not right thing to do without getting anything in return," said Meretz party chairman Yossi Beilin.
Among those who still strive for a negotiated settlement, perhaps the most popular idea floating around is, after the elections, preceding directly into final-status talks with Abbas who, as PLO chairman and PA president, is still the singlemost powerful Palestinian in terms of relations with the outside world.
Though that plan bypasses Hamas where negotiations are concerned, Beilin said Israel should only enter such discussions if Hamas agreed beforehand to abide by a referendum put to the Palestinian people on a final-status accord that those talks produced.
"This is the best way for Israel," said MK Ron Cohen (Meretz). "Otherwise, if we do not open negotiations with Abu Mazen and a Hamas government, we will halt all hope for a political solution."
Israel's only other choice would then be to leave the West Bank unilaterally, Cohen said, "and that vacuum is a very dangerous one, because only terrorists can enter into it."
Cohen acknowledged that after so many bloody years, such a plan would be a tough sell to the Israeli side, since the public would be highly skeptical of a Hamas-led PA being willing and able to prevent terrorism. Accordingly, any final-status agreement would necessarily include steps that are irreversible, such as Hamas giving up its weapons, he said.
"We are not so naive as you imagine. We have to be very sure during the agreement that both sides" are living up to their end of the bargain, Cohen said.
WITH THE Hamas political ascendancy, though, another camp is arguing that the premise of settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict bilaterally is now antiquated.
In winning a democratic election for the Muslim Brotherhood movement, which enjoys broad support within Israel's neighboring countries, Hamas has put the fire to the kettle of the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan and the autocratic rule of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt. Given the long-term threat the Islamist movement poses to those countries' rulers, who are nominally friendly to Israel, the only way now to achieve permanent borders is to multi-lateralize any peace talks, said Tel Aviv University political science professor Shaul Mishal, author of The Palestinian Hamas.
If Israel engaged Hamas on the multi-lateral level, he contended, it would be able to bring much more pressure to bear on the group, since the relevant international players - even the Arab ones - fall closer in line with the Israeli position than with Hamas's stated goal of establishing a Palestinian state on all of historic Palestine. With Europe growing more anxious by the day about rising Islamist attitudes within its borders, he added, the potential for extracting concessions from Hamas in such a setting is great.
"Many Israelis don't believe Hamas is ready to deliver the goods. On other hand, many Israelis are not ready to wait for Hamas to reach a point of being mature enough to conduct direct negotiations with Israel. And the world is not going to wait for Hamas to mature," Mishal said. "If that is what happens, Hamas and Israel will be able to meet each other through proxy."
The formula, Mishal said, already exists in the Arab Summit plan of 2002, which calls for a Pan-Arab-Israeli peace in exchange for Israel's withdrawal to the 1967 borders. Getting Hamas to enter into talks based on that plan, would amount to implicit recognition of Israel, a bar Mishal said is high enough for the time being.
"Both sides, realistically speaking, are in an intensive learning process," he said. "Therefore what we see now, [in] statements by Olmert and [Hamas prime minister-designate Ismail] Haniyeh, are only the first steps toward bargaining."
ONE OTHER option remains: talking to Hamas without precondition, so long as it maintains the ceasefire.
Such a strategy will never be voiced before the election by any party with a realistic chance of leading the next government, for fear of the ensuing political backlash. Nevertheless, its proponents say engagement is the best way to step back from the brinksmanship Israel and Hamas are currently engaged in that could quickly deteriorate into a third intifada.
Under this permutation, achieving permanent borders would be put on the back-burner as Israel judges progress not by the rhetoric coming from the PA leadership (a mistake that was made with Fatah), but by its actions.
"The main issue is whether they conduct a peaceful policy, and if they do we can reward that," said Gadi Taub, author of The Results Are In, and Peace Lost. "It's not about an agreement, it's about a modus vivendi we can reach, and whether or not it's on paper is not important."
What is important, according to adherents of this position, is not being drawn into a black-and-white view of the world by Hamas. Though doing so provides moral clarity, they argue, its lack of nuance seldom produces positive results.
"We shouldn't play the American game of not talking to terrorists. Of course they are terrorists, but as long as they don't do it, they just talk about it, as long as there are no acts of terror" Israel should try talk to Hamas, Ze'ev Sternhell said. It is in "our interest that borders be recognized by the Palestinians and not only by ourselves. We can't continue an endless war. By 2050, 30 million people will be living between the Jordan River and the [Mediterranean] sea, and if we don't reach an agreement it will be hell."
In a paper published by the United States Institute of Peace, Brig.-Gen. (Ret.) Shlomo Brom, the deputy national security advisor to former prime minister Ehud Barak, argued that at the current stage, Israel should only be demanding that Hamas continue the ceasefire, abide by all PA-signed agreements, and not undermine Palestinian democracy and human rights.
At later stages, he wrote, Israel should demand a change in its charter, but for now this approach has the advantage of providing "a framework to test the new Palestinian leadership, while at the same time denying it excuses for failure to change its ways."
While engaging Hamas brings with it serious risks," should engagement fail, it will be easier to build a coalition that supports confrontation," Brom wrote.
For some, however, talking to Hamas, even in order to achieve permanent borders, is simply a leap too far.
"Hamas in its essence is a genocidal movement that needs to be fought and not negotiated with, period," said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center. "Those who suggest that Hamas might moderate don't understand the difference between politics and theology. Hamas is a theological movement whose central core belief is that it is God's will that the State of Israel be destroyed."
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