The Hamas victory in the Palestinian elections has created a frenzy of confusion and conjecture. The situation emerging is anything but clear, and the implications of the elections on any future political process remain to be determined. There are a multiplicity of voices from inside Hamas showing varying degrees of willingness - or unwillingness - to view Israel as a possible partner. Some of the confusion is enhanced by varying remarks voiced by the very same people. Some Hamas personalities are both extreme and moderate, almost at the same time.
The Palestinian system is also a cause for confusion. Mahmoud Abbas must appoint someone to form a government; the only condition is that the new prime minister must win a vote of confidence from parliament. Abbas can select technocrats or non-Hamas politicians to form the government. The prime minister, foreign minister, interior minister in charge of the security apparatuses could all be people acceptable and acting in the name of Abbas and not Hamas. It is also not clear that Hamas would even appoint the most extreme of its members to run the next government.
ABBAS HAS already declared and instructed the security forces that they are subordinate only to him. The Palestinian Authority president has overriding authorities. He is legally allowed to disband the government and even the parliament, and some people say he can even call for new elections anytime he sees fit.
A further complication is that over the Palestinian Authority stands the PLO Executive Committee. Abbas has complete control over the PLO, and although Hamas has now targeted the PLO for takeover after the municipalities and the parliament, it is unlikely that Abbas will make the same mistake twice.
All negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians were conducted by the Palestinians through the PLO. The signatory to all the Israeli-Palestinian agreements was the PLO, and not the Palestinian Authority. Abbas can continue to conduct negotiations with Israel through his position of president of the PA as well as chairman of the Executive Committee of the PLO, and there is nothing the Hamas-led parliament can do to prevent that - short of assassinating him.
THE CHALLENGE before Abbas, the Palestinian people, the international community and the Israeli government is to provide Abbas with the strength and resolve to continue to move forward with a political process.
It is nearly impossible to imagine how Abbas might implement his road map commitments of disarming the militias and the factions, including Hamas, but not completely impossible. Hamas has already proposed that Izzadin al-Kassam, the "military wing of Hamas," be integrated into the Palestinian security apparatuses.
This might be one way to put those forces under the control of the Palestinian president.
The ball is in the Palestinians' court. They must show the world and Israel what their intentions are. Israel can still point the Palestinian leadership in a positive direction. Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert did not take the opportunity to meet with Abbas prior to the elections. During the whole past year Israeli did amazingly little to empower Abbas and strengthen his leadership. German Chancellor Angela Merkel made a point on her first visit to the region to not only visit Jerusalem but also to visit Ramallah, where she met with Abbas.
Olmert's first decision concerning the Palestinians after the elections was to freeze the transfer of NIS 200 million VAT and customs to the PA at a time when the PA is nearly bankrupt. This was a clear message of Israel's ability to pressure and punish the Palestinians if they adopt the Hamas line.
There is a need for Israel to observe what direction Abbas and the PA will take, and NIS 200 million is a significant amount of money. No real harm will happen if the transfer is delayed a week, or even a few weeks. During that time Israel's assessment should be more than a passive one.
Relations between the PA and Israel have always been dynamic and interdependent. Israel has always had the ability to influence, positively or negatively, political directions inside Palestine - just as the Palestinians have the ability to influence political trends and directions inside Israel.
Olmert would be wise to invite Abbas immediately for a meeting in Jerusalem. This does not have to be a well-prepared summit with a positive outcome and statement drafted by the advisers prior to the meeting. There is a real need to engage in proactive assessment-making and in helping to set a course that would be more favorable to Israel's interests.
THERE IS a new reality in Palestine. Israel should be interested now in mitigating the negative outcomes and seeing how a better situation might be possible.
Israel had determined over this past year that Abbas was not a partner because he could not deliver. Yet Abbas proved determined and strong enough to ensure that open, free and the most democratic elections in the Arab world took place as scheduled, against all odds.
Now he must be given the opportunity to prove that he can be a partner in preventing the region from deteriorating into another round of unimaginable violence and destruction. The lives of hundreds, and perhaps thousands, of Israelis and Palestinians are at stake. No government can allow itself to lose any opportunity to change a course of events that may bring about such tragic losses.
The first step is for Olmert to invite Abbas to Jerusalem for some serious talks. The responsibility is in Abbas's hands, but Israel must understand that he needs the assistance of Israel to maneuver in the coming days and weeks. The wrong steps by Israel could lead to Abbas's resignation (or worse), followed by a final takeover by Hamas of the presidency and the PLO.
The writer is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information.