"Deal generously with Yasser Arafat, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority," much of the world lectured Israel for the last decade, "otherwise you might get Hamas." Embedded in this lecture was an implicit threat: "If you think that Arafat and his minions were violent and intractable, just wait until you see the followers of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin." And now, it seems, that fateful day has arrived. But with Hamas poised to win more than 30 percent of the vote in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections scheduled to take place on January 25, senior government officials in Jerusalem are warning that it is not only Israel that needs to worry. The Palestinians - through their use of the ballot box - risk sending the already frozen diplomatic process back into the ice age and slamming the door on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations (bilateralism), thereby ushering in more unilateral Israeli moves. Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin told the cabinet last month that the Palestinians viewed Israeli unilateral moves - such as the security fence and Gaza disengagement - as the major strategic threat to the creation of a Palestinian state that they would deem viable. They want to set the borders of their future state; not have the borders set for them. But if the Palestinians vote in droves for Hamas, they may - paradoxically - be engraving with their own hands the unilateralism they view as a threat to their interests. Discussions this week with senior officials in the Prime Minister's Office, Defense and Foreign Ministries - the three bodies most heavily invested in drawing up Israel's policy toward Hamas and the PA after the elections - reveal widespread agreement that, if the Islamic fundamentalist organization becomes a part of PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas's government, Israel would simply have nothing to do with that government. Unless, of course, Hamas repealed its 1988 charter calling for the destruction of Israel and surrendered its arms - something about as likely as Abbas actually taking steps to dismantle the terrorist organizations before the elections. DAVID HACHAM, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz's adviser on Palestinian affairs, said that since Hamas's positions were crystal clear - "the establishment of an Islamic Palestinian state from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea on the ruins of the State of Israel" - there was "nothing to talk about with them because they want to destroy us." Or, as Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman Ra'anan Gissin quipped, "What are we supposed to talk about, the stages of our destruction?" While there are some voices in the system, foremost among them National Security Adviser Giora Eiland, who argue that becoming part of the "political system" would have a moderating influence on Hamas, the overwhelming position is that this is wishful thinking, that the organization would not ditch its ideology and that Israel - as a senior Foreign Ministry official put it - must in any event take a "principled and moral stand" against Hamas. "This is not an issue that can be governed by realpolitik," the official said. "An organization calling for armed struggle and the destruction of Israel is not an organization we can deal with, and this is a message that we need to send around the world." As for the notion that Hamas would moderate itself once it became a part of the political system, the counterargument is to look at the Lebanese example, where Hizbullah is now a part of the government yet continues to attack Israel. A senior Foreign Ministry source said that Hamas was not actually interested in joining a PA government, because it was not as if Hamas was simply an opposing political party on the Palestinian scene - a Likud to Fatah's Labor - but rather that it represented a completely different ideology and yearned for a different type of government. But to Hacham, whether or not Hamas joined the government after a strong showing at the polls is academic. He said that a strong Hamas showing, widely expected now to be between 30% - 35% of the vote, would be a "millstone" around Abbas's neck that would significantly reduce his room for maneuver with Israel, even if Hamas decided not to sit around the PA's cabinet table. WHICH, THEN, creates a major problem for Israel: What happens when Hamas is precisely the organization that thousands upon thousands of Palestinians freely choose to represent them? The first thing that happens, according to Gissin, Hacham and senior officials in the Foreign Ministry, is that the road map, already moribund, becomes dead in the water. The much-ballyhooed road map to peace, to which Sharon continuously pledges allegiance, calls - among other things - for the Palestinians to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure as a necessary stage before moving on to negotiations with Israel over final status issues. If Abbas was unable to deprive Hamas of even one gun up until now, if he was unable to tackle Hamas before their popularity was made clear at the polls, if he was unable to even take on Islamic Jihad - an organization much smaller than Hamas and not nearly as politically powerful - then he would surely be unable to tackle Hamas after they capture a large part of the Palestinian electorate. As a result, there will be no road map. Which leads to the inevitable "then what?" question. One possible answer was splashed across the front page of Ma'ariv on Monday in the form of a strategy the paper presented as Sharon's next diplomatic plan. According to the report, if the road map dies and terrorism returns with a vengeance, Israel would reach an agreement not with the Palestinians, but rather with the US, over where to draw Israel's eastern frontier. In other words, Israel and the US would negotiate the borders of the Palestinian state - a move that would, like the disengagement from Gaza, necessitate the uprooting of dozens of settlements. And this would happen because Sharon would, after the PA elections and a strong Hamas showing, once again look out from his office and find no Palestinian partner with whom to deal. WHEN SHARON unveiled disengagement back in 2003, one of his main arguments was that Israel had to move unilaterally because there was no one on the other side with whom to speak, and that the current situation was untenable. A strong Hamas showing would likely create a similar situation. The Prime Minister's Office, meanwhile, roundly denied the Ma'ariv report, saying that this was not Sharon's plan, but rather a plan some advisers hoped that he would adopt. There is, indeed, another scenario being bandied about the Prime Minister's Office for the day after the PA elections. According to this argument, if Hamas does well in the elections, Israel could very well sit back hoping that, in the final analysis, after the diplomatic process grinds to a halt, after neither the US nor the EU push Israel to deal with a PA under Hamas influence, after international money or investment stops flowing into Gaza, after poverty rises and Israel embarks on punishing attacks following various terrorist outrages - the Palestinians would tire of the situation and new leaders would emerge heralding a different path. This thinking posits that Hamas is as much a Palestinian problem as an Israeli one, and that if the organization wins political power, Israel would continue - as it has been doing for the last five years - battling terrorism while letting the Palestinians deal with the likely internal mess caused by the elections. "If Hamas does well and, as a result, there is mounting international pressure on the Palestinians and they face increasing economic and security hardships, then they may revolt and clamor for change," one official in the Prime Minister's Office said. In the meantime, he added, Israel, now out of Gaza, could wait patiently on the outside, behind a defensible border, and try to stabilize a tenuous security situation through various military actions, including the possibility of ground action into Gaza if necessary. In other words, Jerusalem would let the Palestinians stew in their own juice, focusing not on diplomatic moves but, rather, military ones intended to keep this juice from spilling over and scalding Israel.