Analysis: A problem of timing, not substance

The election period and Sharon's incapacitation makes dealing with Hamas all the more difficult.

hamas men masked 298 (photo credit: AP [file])
hamas men masked 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
Israeli policy makers would have had a devil of a time dealing with a Hamas victory in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections even in the best of times - even if Prime Minister Ariel Sharon were healthy and at the helm, and the government robust and in the middle of its term. But the fact that critical decisions about Israel's ties to the PA need to be made now, in the heat of an election campaign, just makes the decision-making process that much more difficult. Matters are complicated even further considering that Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is less experienced and confident than the man whose place he is taking. In other words, domestic electoral considerations are impacting on the critical decisions toward a Hamas-led PA that are being made now. National Security Council head Giora Eiland told the cabinet Sunday that he had no problem with the steps the cabinet approved: including ending Israel's transfer of funds to the PA; asking the international community to do the same; preventing the transfer of security-related equipment to the PA; restricting movement of Hamas members going from Gaza to the West Bank; and tightening the security checks at the Gaza crossings. Eiland said his problem was one of timing, not substance. Israel, he said, was making a mistake in implementing these decisions now, following Saturday's PLC swearing-in ceremony, and not waiting until the formation of a Hamas government before taking these steps. The Quartet (the US, EU, Russia and the UN) has made clear that it would not alter its relations with the PA until a Hamas government was formed. Its "D-Day" for changing its ties with the PA, therefore, is different from Israel's, which made the PLC ceremony Saturday the date and event that marked the beginning of a new era. Eiland argued that if Israel wanted the freedom of movement to take even harsher measures against a Hamas-led PA in the future, it would need international support and understanding now. He said this support and understanding could very well dwindle were Israel to take measures against the PA now, and not give Hamas time to either reject or accept the three conditions Israel and the international community set for Hamas. These three conditions are disarming and disavowing terrorism, recognizing Israel, and accepting all previous agreements with it. Indeed, by moving D-Day up Israel made an about-face policy switch, since immediately after the PLC elections on January 25 the country's position as relayed to Western diplomatic officials was that Jerusalem would take a wait-and-see attitude until after a Hamas government was formed. However, after Olmert came under sharp criticism from both the Likud's Binyamin Netanyahu and Labor's Amir Peretz for his decision last week to transfer tax and customs revenues for the month of January to the PA, Israel moved up its D-Day to the date when the PLC was sworn in, not when a Hamas government was formed. Eiland warned the cabinet that by taking sanctions now Israel may be shooting itself in the foot and damaging long-term international support for Israel's position vis- -vis Hamas. If this, in fact, turns out to be the case, then Sunday's decision could go down as an example of Olmert sacrificing a valuable strategic asset - an international consensus against Hamas - for short-term political gain.