Editor's Notes: Try, try and try again

Maybe Mahmoud Abbas can yet save us from Hamastan, says Beilin.

The Right regards him as the embodiment of Israel's lost direction, the misguided (or worse) instigator of Yasser Arafat's rehabilitation, the man whose policies of appeasement sowed the seeds of Hamas's rise to power. Yossi Beilin, needless to say, doesn't see it quite like that. Yes, the Islamic conquest of the Palestinian parliament is a disaster, and we will not be rid of these "repugnant" extremists for a long time. But this is a reality his policies were designed to prevent, and would have prevented had they been followed, says Beilin. Crucially, he adds, it may not be too late, even now. Seated low behind a small desk, in a tiny bare office, on the fifth floor of a low-rent Tel Aviv office block, his voice all-but overwhelmed by the air-conditioning unit behind him, Beilin nurses no illusions about his Meretz party constituting a dominant force in Israel's next government. He's hopeful, though he doesn't sound entirely convinced, that it can yet build on its six Knesset seats. But he is absolutely certain that Ehud Olmert will be our next prime minister. And if Olmert were smart, says Beilin, forehead increasingly lined and hair now gray enough to blend with his charcoal jacket, his first act as elected prime minister would be to renew contacts with Mahmoud Abbas - the lame duck Palestinian Authority chairman to some; to Beilin, Mr. Indispensable. Why bother doing that? Because rhetoric apart, asserts Beilin, we all know that the status quo is disastrous for Israel, and so the only choice is between conceding territory by agreement or unilaterally. Better, then, before relinquishing most of the West Bank to Hamastan, to make one last stab at negotiating a deal. Might Olmert seriously consider such a course? "Why not?" says the architect of the Oslo accords. For the Right, the rise of Hamas is all your fault: The Left gave the Palestinians hope; it didn't insist on an end to terrorism. Our move, the Oslo process, was largely to torpedo Hamas. In 1992 and '93 the PLO was very weak. To a certain extent, we saved it. And the Right heavily criticized us. And I said that I greatly feared at that time that Hamas was taking control, and Hamas was never prepared for dialogue with us. Therefore it was in our interest to strengthen the PLO, because whoever wouldn't talk to the PLO would end up facing Hamas. At the end of the day, to my sorrow, that has come to pass. I didn't understand why after Abu Mazen was elected as president of the PA, [Ariel] Sharon didn't coordinate the pullout from Gaza with him and continued with a unilateral pullout that he knew would strengthen Hamas. Abu Mazen, Abu Ala, Yasser Abed Rabbo, that Tunis group went through a change - you can say not enough; you can say some then changed their minds again; you can say anything. But that is a group that was prepared to recognize Israel and abstain from terror and reach a permanent accord with us. And I say we still can today reach an agreement with it. Most Israelis today might say this group never changed, and that only your naivety or worse allowed you to think so. This a group that abandoned terror. Abu Mazen stood up to Arafat and told him to stop the armed intifada. But Sharon saw as a goal to destroy the PA infrastructure. At the start of his term as prime minister, before he hurt Hamas, he hurt the PA. The PA was greatly weakened. And Abu Mazen apparently didn't have the capacity to tackle Hamas. Capacity? Not a lack of courage and will? If, as soon as he was elected PM, we had entered genuine coordination, we could together have taken Hamas apart. We weren't prepared to partner him and strengthen him. And the craziest thing we did was release prisoners to [Hizbullah's Sheikh] Nasrallah in the [2004] Tannenbaum deal and give Gaza to Hamas - instead of Abu Mazen. If we had given him the advantage of Gaza, if we'd released the prisoners to him, the picture would have changed. Isn't it the case that the PA, under Arafat and Abbas, failed to educate for coexistence? Isn't that the mind-set that brought Hamas to power? The education and culture were certainly hostile to us. But there were many positive changes compared to the Jordanian syllabuses in the first to sixth grades; it didn't get as far as 12th grade. And Abu Mazen did succeed in reducing anti-Israel broadcasts. And you still believe that today we should talk to Abbas? I'd try. I'm not sure this is realistic now. But on Saturday, Abu Mazen said come and talk to me. If I was the prime minister, I'd say, "OK, on one condition: I'd need a public declaration from Hamas that it would accept the decision made by the Palestinian people in a referendum on any agreement we reached." I think that Hamas has a need for a "Shabbat goy." Hamas won't talk to us. Maybe in the future, but not today. And it may be convenient for Hamas if Abu Mazen speaks to us. Hamas might one day come to terms with us? They are repugnant. I see no sign that they'll change. And no sign that they won't. They're mostly young people who haven't finalized their stance. They were not prepared for this victory. They want a unity government. They're very scared of taking control. I believe that reality will influence them. But maybe not. Their victory is a disaster. Surely there's no prospect of any prime minister doing what you suggest? I think Ehud [Olmert] really could go to Abu Mazen and say "I want to know from you that if I enter talks with you, that the result will be put to a referendum and that all the factions will accept the result." Ehud knows as well as I do that Kadima is a one-term party. He's got the chance of his life to do something. He says his preference is to reach an agreement. He can't reach an agreement with Hamas. That means the only way to try to reach an agreement is with the PLO. Abu Mazen has been strengthened by the election result, paradoxically. He has become the most important man in the Palestinian Authority. First of all, to Fatah, because he's their hold on power. Second to Hamas, because he's the bridge to the world, the personification of Palestinian legitimacy. And he's important to us, because we don't want to have to face up only to Hamas. So Abu Mazen is still an address for dialogue. The success of his enemies has made him indispensable. Truly indispensable. Imagine that tomorrow he resigns and there are elections for the PA presidency. It's very possible that a Hamas man would be chosen. And because I know him well I tell you that... he's always on the point of resignation. Why try again with him? When he had the opportunity to tackle terrorism, he didn't. Maybe. I say also we could have helped him. I don't absolve him of responsibility. Today his essentialness has returned and I think we should make use of it. Unless you say what they say on the Right: "Hamas is better than the PLO. Better to see their true face." The Right says there's no difference between the two. All I'm saying is that the notion of a status quo [benefiting Israel] is dead. It died with Sharon. Sharon reached the conclusion that we have to do something to guarantee a Jewish state. That's the whole story. When he took office and he was asked about the demographics, he'd answer that he believed a million more Jews would come from America. After a few years he realized that wasn't going to happen. He concluded that we had to relinquish Gaza and intimated that he was ready to relinquish land in the West Bank. The real argument today [on the Israeli side] is between unilateralism and an agreement. Not between unilateralism and staying put? The Right is only the Likud and the National Union - it doesn't include Israel Beiteinu and it doesn't include Shas. It says that we have to stay where we are [in the territories] until there is a Palestinian partner prepared to accept our conditions. It's a tiny minority in the parliament. On the other hand, you have Kadima, Labor, Meretz, the Arab parties, Shas, Aguda and Israel Beiteinu which say: divide the land. Shas stresses an agreement. Israel Beiteinu stresses the absence of an agreement. Labor prefers an agreement. We are the agreement party. And Kadima, as in everything, is cagey. Now, if the choice is between relinquishing additional territory and leaving it to Hamas, or making a supreme effort to reach an agreement, it seems to me that the imperative to seek an agreement is strong. You don't think the "stay put" camp can win the elections, despite the precedent of 1996? Listen, it's over. Olmert will be the next prime minister. Kadima has won. With the Likud's 15 or 16 seats, the chances of it forming the next government are imaginary. Do you think the Palestinian people, given their election preferences, have any desire to enter talks with us? I'm not sure. What I say is don't reject the idea out of hand. And if Olmert doesn't attempt this, or if it fails, what do you see then? We are facing unbelievably extreme people. We've gone back 40 years. It's terrible. The worst case scenario. The question is whether there is still some opening, before we give them the land and they set up Hamastan. I say yes. How will we manage alongside this Hamastan? We'll survive. But nothing will have been resolved. We'll be leaving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute to the next generation. There'll be no recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, no recognition of a permanent eastern border. The issue of the refugees won't be solved. They'll continue to raise children with the keys to homes in Ramle and Jaffa. And what about the military threat? I don't think Hamas poses a military threat. Not in alliance with Iran and the extreme Islamic world? I don't see that as our central problem, especially if it declares a hudna. Doesn't Hamas think it can destroy us? Of course not. They're not idiots. Not even backed by Iran, a nuclear Iran? I don't think so. They promise a long-term cease-fire if we withdraw to the 1967 borders, including Jerusalem. I don't think any Israeli government will go back to the 1967 borders, and divide Jerusalem, for nothing in return. I wouldn't. So the withdrawal will be to a different place and won't include Jerusalem. If they would still declare a hudna if Israel withdrew from 70 or 80 percent of the territory, then that's better than nothing. That day would be terribly sad, but in the reality we've reached now... And if there's no hudna? So we'll face up to that. But in any situation, in the next term of government, we have to put an end to the occupation and divide the land - for demographic and moral reasons. And if we can't reach an agreement, I'll support a unilateral withdrawal that I'd hate. What would be your unilateral lines? I have a map for an agreement, but not for a unilateral pullout. Whatever we do, we must not withdraw to the 1967 borders. We have to leave something to negotiate. And I'd like to see at least some settlements annexed to Israel as part of a deal.