The upsurge in violence in the Gaza Strip does not seem to be of concern to the US administration. Official spokespersons this week used the regular phrases about the "right of Israel to protect itself" and the need to "refrain from any steps that might exacerbate the situation."
The main issue troubling the US now is not necessarily how the current outbreak will unfold, but rather what will happen in three months when Palestinians go to the polls for parliamentary elections. While the Americans and Israel have experience in dealing with Hamas the terror organization, there is debate and uncertainty as to how to deal with Hamas as a political party. A sound policy is particularly urgent given that Hamas would likely garner significant support in the elections, becoming one of the strongest political forces in the Palestinian Authority.
The importance of this troubling question for American policy makers was evident last weekend in a seminar held by The Washington Institute for Near East Policy at a Virginia resort. The think tank brought together Middle East experts, diplomats and administration officials for a series of discussions on a whole range of regional issues from Iraq to Afghanistan, but the issue of Hamas and the Palestinian elections seemed to dog almost every discussion.
While most experts agree that there is a genuine problem with Hamas taking part in the elections before it disarms and denounces terror, the ideas for dealing with the problem vary.
In one of the heated debates that marked the seminar, Robert Malley, who served on President Clinton's Middle East peace team, suggested the US should refrain from demanding Hamas disarm before the elections.
"For the US to come out against their participation in the elections would be a mistake. Abu Mazen thinks he can incorporate the Hamas and we should not interrupt," he said.
Malley's counterpart in the discussion, Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute, was quick to reply in referring to Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian who heads al-Qaida in Iraq: "And what if Zarqawi wants to run in the Iraq elections? Would the US agree to that?"
While the audience at the event might have sided with Satloff's argument, the US administration is well aware of the delicate situation facing Mahmoud Abbas. Too much pressure on the Palestinian leader to confront Hamas could lead to a collapse of his government and throw the PA into chaos.
On the other hand, there is the principle that terror and democracy cannot coexist. If the US demonstrates tolerance towards Hamas in the Palestinian elections, how will it be able to prevent terror groups from running in Iraq, in Lebanon or anywhere else?
A senior Bush administration official said last week that "if people are elected and they want to follow the path of violence, we will not deal with them," meaning the US would not allow its officials to have any contacts with elected Hamas officials. "Arafat created a bunch of warlords and we have to try to break it up. I do not underestimate how difficult it will be," the official added.
In essence, what the official is suggesting is the Hizbullah model.
The US did not attempt to prevent the Lebanon-based Hizbullah from taking part in that country's elections but made clear to the Lebanese government that it would not have ties of any kind with members of the group, even if they were democratically elected.
Not all see the Hizbullah model as a success. While the US refrains from any contact with Hizbullah officials in Lebanon, this ban has not caused the organization to lay down its arms, nor did it succeed in curbing Hizbullah's popularity in Lebanon.
The other problem with the Hizbullah model is Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
During his trip to New York earlier this month, Sharon caught the US administration off-guard with his explicit threat that Israel would not facilitate the Palestinian elections if members of armed terror groups are allowed to participate in them. Israeli cooperation is crucial to the success of the Palestinian political process. If Israel was to maintain roadblocks, prevent free passage of voters and candidates, and hamper the convening of elected representatives, the elections would be all but meaningless.
Sharon's threat makes the Hizbullah model insufficient for solving the Hamas dilemma, and puts the US back at square one.
Diplomatic sources in Washington point to the upcoming meeting between President George Bush and Abbas on October 20th as the new deadline for reaching a decision about how to handle Hamas participation in the elections. The meeting could produce a joint declaration in which Abbas makes a commitment to pass a new election law which would ban candidates that use terror or hold racist views. Such a law would be consistent with agreements made between Israel and the PA during the Oslo period and with current European election laws.
A move by Abbas to reform the election law though its implementation might be hard to monitor could help move all three sides closer to an acceptable election model. For the Americans it would enhance the principal that democracy must reject terrorists and not let them run for office; for Israel it might just be enough to prove that Abbas is taking action; and for the PA it would be much easier than dealing with an outright demand to dismantle Hamas immediately.
In one of the sessions at the Virginia seminar last week, Nabil Amr, who was just chosen to be Abbas's campaign manager, claimed the Americans and Israelis are getting it all wrong. What is needed now, according to Amr, is not more pressure on Abbas, but rather more backing.
"If Sharon supports him, he [Abbas] will go further in dealing with the Hamas and other armed groups," said Amr.
At the other end of the table, Israeli Brig.-Gen. Michael Herzog, who took part in negotiations with the Palestinians over the past four years, strongly disagreed.
"Will you be able to leverage the Hamas after they get 30 to 40 percent in the elections? The time is now," he claimed.
For the US administration, the time might not be right now, but it is getting closer. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in an interview with Time magazine, stressed the entire international community should be asking itself whether terrorists should be allowed to take part in the elections, adding that this is not only an Israeli problem.