Hamas gunmen 298.8.
(photo credit: AP [file])
Despite Israel's natural inclination to view Hamas's military victory over Fatah forces in Gaza with despair, the movement's complete control over the Gaza Strip might not be as bad as we fear. In fact, it may offer the best opportunity in years to break the current political stalemate by facilitating the creation of an effective address in the West Bank with which Israel can promote a political process.
Since 2000, the biggest obstacle to any progress between Israel and the Palestinians has been the absence of either a partner or an "address" on the Palestinian side. The reform to the Palestinian Basic Law in the context of the road map was supposed to alleviate this problem by creating a prime minister who would bypass Arafat.
But the reform became an even greater constitutional millstone round the Palestinian political system's neck after Arafat's death and Hamas's victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January 2006.
The reform led to constitutional dysfunction due to overlapping powers of the chairman (Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas) and the government, controlled by Hamas.
With no legal way out of this crisis until the next Palestinian Authority elections in 2010, Israel has been forced to bide its time, hoping that a boycott would force Hamas to change its spots. As international support for the boycott eroded, and a humanitarian disaster in the PA seemed to be in the cards, Israel's choices were growing thin.
Now, Hamas's disregard for the PA constitution in carrying out a military coup could work in Israel's favor. With a clear Fatah majority in the PLO, Abbas could use the fighting as an opportunity to break the constitutional Gordian knot tying Palestinian hands and annul the Basic Law, thus centralizing power in the West Bank under his leadership.
This new scenario would, in effect, create two separate political-territorial units alongside Israel - a Gaza Hamastan and a West Bank Fatah-land.
Instead of Israel being faced with no Palestinian address, it would suddenly be able to deal with two.
While no one would celebrate the official presence of a Hamastan a few kilometers from Sderot, the new situation would nevertheless provide opportunities. The de facto division between Gaza and the West Bank would allow Israel to maintain its boycott of Hamas in Gaza while utilizing the emergence of a political partner in the West Bank for the first time in many years.
In this context, Israel should consider strengthening Abbas by transferring funds, renewing free movement for trade and lifting constraints on cooperation with Fatah members.
For its part, Hamas may find that its victory over Fatah is only the beginning of its problems. The group will need to deal with a hostile international community, tension with Egypt, internal ideological divisions and provision of services to Gaza's civilian population. Similar to King Pyrrhus, whose victory over the Romans was so costly that his men were later defeated, Hamas may find that though it won the battle, it has ultimately lost the war.
We shouldn't expect the way ahead to be easy or that we're on the verge of a Swiss-style utopian peace. Hamas isn't disappearing any time soon, Fatah members haven't suddenly turned into card-carrying Zionists, and Israeli society's ability for extensive territorial compromise is yet to be fully tested.
But if we want to maintain Israel as a Jewish democratic state and prevent the inevitable slide towards anarchy and increased international isolation - the eventual result of continued occupation - we need to find a Palestinian address with which to implement a two-state solution.
Recent events in Gaza may provide our best opportunity for some time to come.
Calev Ben Dor is an analyst at the Reut Institute.