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(photo credit: Associated Press [file])
The US administration went out of its way this week to give Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni a warm welcome. The kind words from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice; the rare joint press conference at the State Department; and the "spontaneous" - though planned well in advance - "drop in" by President Bush at the White House, were all part of an attempt to strengthen the new minister, to show support to Israel in times of turmoil and, critics will argue, also to provide the Kadima party with a valuable photo-opportunity to be used in the election campaign.
But Livni did not come to Washington only for a photo-op. Livni, with her unmistakable down-to-business, straight-talking style, had a mission: to make sure that the administration's tough statements about Hamas remain intact over the next weeks and months, during which the organization will gradually take control of the PA and the world will slowly begin to look for ways to engage with it.
The Israeli-American level of understanding regarding Hamas is as high as it can be, say Israeli diplomats. US officials agree. But, as Livni herself pointed out, what lies ahead is a slippery slope.
Now that the initial shock is over and Hamas is preparing to actualize its majority in the Palestinian parliament, a new stage is beginning - the reality stage.
The US has made a huge effort to strengthen Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian caretaker government, attempting to persuade the Palestinian president to remain in office, in the hope that focusing on the short term will somehow justify not planning for the long term, when Hamas will actually be in power.
So far, this effort has been relatively successful.
Abbas is not resigning, and the financial crisis in the PA has been put on hold. But the future has not gone away. In fact, it's just around the corner.
ISRAELI OFFICIALS point out that the problem with dealing with Hamas does not lie in the extreme scenarios, but rather in the grey areas. It is clear that if Hamas, in its current incarnation, forms the next Palestinian government and does not adhere to the conditions of the international community, the US will remain steadfast in its opposition to the group, and will ban all contact - diplomatic, political and financial - with its representatives. This is seen as a reasonable approach, acceptable to all sides. It even leaves no room for debate, since American law prohibits contact with groups on the list of terror organizations.
But what happens if the ensuing scenarios are not so clear-cut? What will the US do with those that fall between full acceptance of the conditions and complete rejection of them?
Israeli officials have already mapped out such possibilities. The PA could form a technocratic government without active Hamas members; it could keep active terrorists out of the cabinet, by making a distinction between "political Hamas" and "armed Hamas"; or it could resort to the Oslo Accord, that names the PLO - not the PA - as the partner for negotiations with Israel.
All these options are seen by Israel as obvious tricks aimed at getting Hamas into power, while maintaining a fa ade of moderation.
Yet, while this is clear to Israel, the US is refusing to get into the specifics. This is causing Israel some nervousness.
A senior administration official said last week that the US is not rushing to look for formulas or to find ways of dealing with Hamas. "It's their [Hamas's] problem to figure out the answer," he said, noting that the US is quite happy now to sit on the sidelines and not think about the "day after."
But history has shown that the administration always ends up accepting creative solutions where dealing with the Palestinians is concerned. When the dialogue with the PLO began during the Reagan-Schultz administration, the US was willing to accept the organization's word that it recognized Israel - without following up on the whole legislative process needed to be undergone on the Palestinian side. Then, in 1992, it convinced Israel to attend the Madrid Conference, claiming there was a difference between the "Territories Palestinians" and the "Tunis Palestinians."
Even when dealing with Yasser Arafat, the US often exhibited flexibility concerning conditions he was supposed to meet.
THIS IS only one reason for Israel's worry about the future. A more significant one is the feeling that there will come a day when the international community's solidarity against Hamas will begin to crack, and that the US will come under pressure to change its views. This might not seem likely today, but what if Hamas declares it will not carry out terror attacks (without renouncing terror altogether), or if the organization's leaders say they recognize Israel (but the Hamas charter is not changed)? This is precisely the kind of slippery slope that Israel does not want to see the US sliding down.
According to both American and Israeli officials, the administration tends to believe that it is possible to remain firm on not engaging with Hamas while simultaneously keeping an open channel with the Palestinians, in hopes that eventually Hamas will be the one to slide down the slippery slope, until it reaches the final stage of recognizing Israel's right to exist and of dismantling its terrorist arm.
The financial aid that seemed to be the "big stick" the administration was carrying is no longer perceived as significant.
True, the administration attached a proviso to its budget request to Congress this week, saying the $150 million foreign aid package to the Palestinians is "under review." But US spokespeople said definitively that ongoing projects will not be reviewed, and that humanitarian aid to the PA will also continue to flow.
Nigel Roberts, who, until several months ago, served as the World Bank's senior representative in the Palestinian territories, said this week in Washington that it must be in everybody's interest to avoid the "economic meltdown" that will occur if all aid is stopped.
James Wolfensohn, the Quartet liaison to the PA, went to the Gulf this week to persuade Arab countries to contribute more to the Palestinian economy, in order to help it with its existing debt and to prepare for a potential drop in donations from the US and Europe.
FOR the Israeli government, the matter of financial aid to the PA is not a source of concern. Israeli officials often have spoken of the need to help the Palestinians with their humanitarian needs, and Israelis are also assured - both by American law and by the American-led war on global funding of terror - that the administration will refrain from any financial assistance to a Hamas-led PA.
While the administration is not giving any clue about its future plans regarding the PA, others are beginning to take a stand: Congress is working on tough legislation that, if passed, would ensure that the US does not fund or assist a Hamas-led PA; Israel is trying to disseminate the notion that when Hamas practically takes power, the PA should be seen as a "terror entity" and put under sanctions; and the Arab states, while calling on Hamas to recognize Israel, are urging the US not to take drastic measures that would harm the Palestinians and a future two-state solution.
The final policy of the US will probably fall somewhere in between.
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