Israel vs. Hamas: Tangled up in gray

Ever since Hamas won the Palestinian Legislative Council elections in January, Israel's anti-Hamas strategy has been to set up a black-or-white scenario. Either Hamas recognizes Israel, accepts previous agreements, and renounces violence, or they don't. What could be simpler? Hamas, on the other hand, is trying to create gray areas, and in the process is bedeviling Israeli diplomatic efforts. Hamas prime minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh's interview last Thursday on CBS is a case in point. To an American audience, he said that he never dispatched suicide bombers and wouldn't want any of his 13 kids to be one. He also said he hoped that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement could be signed in Washington. These words create gray areas, giving the listeners the feeling that this organization is indeed changing its spots. Hamas retractions the following day didn't receive nearly the same media prominence. More gray areas are likely to be created in Khartoum on March 28-29 at the annual Arab League summit. At that summit, Hamas may very well accept the general principles of the Beirut initiative - the Saudi-backed plan that called for full Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 lines and establishment of a Palestinian state with east Jerusalem as its capital in exchange for an end to the "Arab-Israeli conflict" and the establishment of "normal relations" with Israel. That plan withered after running into Israeli opposition, but many in the world would undoubtedly see its acceptance by Hamas - even if only in a very general way - as a step forward, especially as this plan is mentioned in the road map. Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa is behind efforts to get Hamas to accept the initiative. Granted, some killjoys will argue that the plan doesn't talk about a renunciation of terrorism, or acceptance of previous agreements with Israel. But, will come the reply, look at the upside: what is acceptance of a plan calling for a two-state solution if not implicit recognition of Israel's right to exist? Hamas's acceptance of this initiative would obviously be applauded in the West as a major step forward, and would lead to pressure on Israel to "make a similar gesture" even though Hamas would not have given a full-throated agreement to abide by the Quartet's three conditions for legitimacy. Hamas's cabinet lineup is also an example of shades of gray. As expected, the cabinet doesn't include any of the organization's marquee terrorists, but rather is heavy on academics and technocrats who the West will find difficult labeling "terrorists." Indeed, in recent days Israel is hearing more and more from various quarters around the world that it should give Hamas more time. Some of this advice is coming from Europe and the UN, and some of it from the Arab world - particularly Egypt, which has undergone a transformation regarding Hamas. When Foreign Minster Tzipi Livni visited there last month, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman said the organization must accept the Quartet's three conditions. Now the Egyptians are increasingly saying that, while Hamas should accept previous agreements and renounce terrorism, recognizing Israel would take much more time. In the meantime, the Egyptians are whispering, Hamas may fail to provide for the Palestinians, and - in the process - fall. Israel is unlikely to oblige or ease up on pressure on the world to stand firm by their three conditions. Indeed, Israel is concerned about how Hamas would likely exploit the time for its own benefit. One of the major concerns in Jerusalem is that the international community's resolve regarding Hamas would melt if the humanitarian crisis worsens in Gaza. Some Israeli officials say that the PA's insistence that aid be brought into Gaza through the Karni crossing and not the Kerem Shalom crossing - which Israel favors because of security concerns - is little more than Hamas's attempt to exacerbate the humanitarian crisis for its own benefit. Israeli officials are petrified of what pictures of hungry Palestinian children scavenging for food could to the world's resolve to ostracize Hamas. Which explains why Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz took the decision Monday, despite concrete warnings of terrorist attacks, to open the Karni crossing for a few hours. That the crossing was closed shortly thereafter because of security concerns only highlights Israel's dilemma: to what extent should Jerusalem take concrete security risks to prevent a humanitarian crisis that in the long run could lead to a softening of the international community's position on Hamas, which runs contrary to the country's strategic interest?