Kassams can't go unanswered, but can Hamas yet be engaged?

The next round of fighting with Hamas is a war waiting to happen.

Kassam Great 224.88 (photo credit: Channel 1)
Kassam Great 224.88
(photo credit: Channel 1)
The next round of fighting with Hamas is a war waiting to happen. We all make mistakes, but the sheer crassness of Hamas's knee-jerk actions begs understanding. All the signs were that Hamas wanted the tahadiyeh to be prolonged, and so did we. Our minister of defense has been saying so all along, though he has been scornfully rebuffed by those who have been preaching that we should go into Gaza and smash Hamas, throw them out, get rid of them once and for all. We are, after all, living in a preelection period in which anything goes; when our politicians are falling over each other beating the tam-tams and rattling the sabers; when politicians will promise anything, but really anything, that will help them get votes. It's election time and irresponsible politicians and journalists are having a ball. Reality will be restored the day after, when the votes have been counted, and the political hangover will replace the heady climacteric preceding the march of Israel to the polls. Yet reality does not wait. Eighty Kassams and mortar shells crashed into Israel on Wednesday, many after the Hanukka candles had been lit and when our Christian tourists braved the pouring rain to attend High Mass in Bethlehem on Xmas eve. More followed on Thursday. Those dozens of Kassams and mortar shells cannot remain unanswered, and rightly so. The government has given the green light for a "painful riposte." Yet even now a poll published Thursday showed a majority - 46 percent against 40% - opposing a land conquest of Gaza. All options are now open, and it remains to be seen if Hamas will continue to up the ante by increasing its Kassam attacks on the South, which will inevitably cause a large land attack on the Gaza Strip, or whether it will draw back from its bellicose acts and renew its proposals for a resumption of the tahadiyeh. THERE WAS a time when the PLO members were, to all intents and purposes, terrorists, and when Israelis were jailed just for speaking to a PLO affiliate. The PLO then was at least as extreme against Israel as Hamas is today. A great deal has happened since then, since the mid-'90s when the Oslo Accord was signed and when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin shook hands, reluctantly, with PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Since then our prime ministers, with the exception of Arik Sharon but including Bibi Netanyahu, embraced Yasser Arafat and, after his death, have had warm relations with his successor, President Mahmoud Abbas. Fatah, which spearheaded the PLO, is engaged in ongoing talks with Israel for a full-fledged peace agreement. Even those who had previously been some of the most militant Fatah members, today speak of the need for two independent states at peace with each other. Could the same happen one day with Hamas? In an intriguing article on Hamas in the latest issue of The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs by Efraim Halevy, who knows a thing or two, the former Mossad head writes of the possibility of reaching some form of tacit understanding with Hamas. Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the Hamas leader, spoke of a "30-year truce" before he was killed in an air strike. "In 1997," Halevy writes, "King Hussein of Jordan conveyed a similar proposal to Israel on behalf of the Hamas leadership barely a week before the unsuccessful Mossad operation launched in Amman to eliminate Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader then living in Jordan." Since then, according to Halevy, Mashaal, now domiciled in Damascus, has gone on record saying that Hamas would accept a solution negotiated with Israel if it were approved in a national Palestinian referendum. Halevy concludes his article by stating that we must maintain our vigilance and be constantly prepared for a major showdown, and he asks: "But might we, simultaneously, also pursue the other option - a 'time-out' for 10, 20, 30 or even 50 years? Europe has enjoyed a hudna for around 300 years. In view of there being no really viable alternative, should we continue to ignore Hamas in any political context?" HAMAS HAS been one subject that, understandably, has kept us preoccupied. Syria, and more particularly the recent declarations of Prime Minister Olmert on that subject, is another. Take Netanyahu as a good example of preelection fever. His message of the week was: No withdrawal from the Golan. The Likud will stay put. He, Bibi, is not going to follow Olmert's peace-mongering. Likud, in contrast to Kadima, will stand firm and will not give up any territory on the Heights in exchange for peace. Bibi, as a highly intelligent political leader, is pandering to the Right, saying what he believes will tighten his reins over the no-holds-barred, no-inch-given conformists, for whom the Syrians, Palestinians and other Arabs are enemy No. 1 and our own leftists come a very close second. Netanyahu intends to stay there, and forget about the Syrians, or the Turks, or anybody else who wants to see us making peace with those Syrians. "Surely you don't take what he is saying seriously," a good friend of mine who could have written a PhD thesis on Bibi asked me? Bibi, my friend told me, said exactly the same things about the Syrians during previous general election campaigns. But, lo and behold, when he became prime minister things changed dramatically. His choice for secret emissary to the Syrians was former US ambassador Ron Lauder (today the highly respected president of the World Jewish Congress). Lauder carried out a number of missions to Damascus and succeeded in gaining the confidence and the respect of president Hafez Assad. Lauder prepared a lengthy report with some 18 points for Netanyahu, which the prime minister considered a suitable basis for proceeding with negotiations with Damascus. The problems began when the Syrian president produced maps to underline his demands. The uncrowned King of Maps in Israel was, of course, Arik Sharon who, at the time, strenuously opposed any withdrawal from the Golan. Largely thanks to him, progress toward a settlement between Israel and Syria was prevented. There can be little doubt that, after the elections in February, our next prime minister - whether it is a she or a he - will, sooner or later, pursue direct negotiations with the Syrians for peace. Statements made now should not be taken seriously, and one could almost see the proverbial tongue in Bibi's cheek when he made his Syrian declaration earlier this week. If, however, the Likud wins the elections and Netanyahu becomes prime minister, he will face immediate opposition from his own Likud hard core. It has its own agenda to pursue, very different from the centrist policy Bibi would like to follow. For now, though, Syria and a host of other problems that will face our next government can wait. We have more urgent problems to face: above all, Hamas, Kassams, Grads, mortars and what to do about them. That is the one urgent question that will keep us occupied in the days and weeks to come. Even the election campaign and all it entails will take second place.