Before succumbing to a massive brain hemorrhage Wednesday, Jan. 4, Ariel Sharon left his mark – as controversial as ever – on a key Middle East process; he cleared the way for the Islamist terror group Hamas to run in the forthcoming elections for the Palestinian legislative council – if it indeed takes place as scheduled on Jan. 25.
Given the predictions of its strong showing, this step was tantamount to accepting Hamas share in future Palestinian governance.
One again, Sharon braved popular displeasure by restraining the Israeli armed forces from an effective, large-scale military action to halt the Palestinian Qassam missile offensive plaguing southern Israel from the Gaza Strip and edging towards the big oil port and power stations of Ashkelon.
This restraint was part and parcel of the unilateralist policy the Israeli prime minister has pursued in the last two years towards the Palestinians. This strategy was embodied in Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank in the summer of 2005 and the continuation he planned for parts of the West Bank in his third term of office.
The Hamas, with a 30 percent segment at least of the Palestinian vote, would own a controlling stake in legislature and government. This is the same group which openly vows to destroy Israel and to never recognize or negotiate with the Jewish State. Therefore, the lack of a peace partner would give Sharon a convincing rationale for pursuing unilateral steps on the West Bank as he did in Gaza, a policy which would be closely attuned to the Bush administration’s objectives at two levels.
The current administration in Washington favors the Hamas bid for election – firstly, to bring it into the political mainstream, but, most of all, to bolster Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) and his team in power at the head of the Palestinian Authority.
Everyone wants Hamas to score
DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Washington sources report that the Bush administration has convinced itself that the postponement of Palestinian elections will finally remove the reins of government from Abu Mazen’s hands, whereas it is in his interest to hold the election and let Hamas score substantially. Once in government, some US officials expect Hamas to be keen on using Abbas as a middleman who would represent its interests in dealing with Washington and Jerusalem. His usefulness to Hamas would keep him safe in the saddle.
Hamas, furthermore, is seen by some Bush administration circles as an asset in a further important respect. Although it is governed by a radical terrorist ideology, Hamas is the only centrally-commanded, cohesive Palestinian fighting force which opposes and is capable of resisting the al Qaeda incursions into the Gaza Strip and its spread to the West Bank.
(See separate article in this issue on al Qaeda’s invasion of Palestinian terrorist groups)
Hamas tacticians assimilated this American-Israeli take and responded in two ways.
The organization made a show of standing beside fellow Palestinian terror groups – Fatah-al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, Jihad Islami, and the radical Palestinian Fronts – for the joint announcement on Dec. 31 that their purported partial truce on terrorist operations against Israel expired on Jan 1, 2006.
But in practice, they stood aside and effectively held their fire.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources point out that, under Hamas management, the current Qassam missile offensive against Israel would have sent 40-50 missiles flying daily instead of the current 10 to 20.
The second move taken by the Palestinian Islamic group was to inform Abbas that its winning candidates did not aspire to displace him and his party as the ruling force in the Palestinian Authority. They would extend him support, without, however, rescinding their organization’s power bases in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank.
On this understanding, Hamas and the Palestinian leader have been engaged in unannounced dialogue for some weeks. It proceeded partly in Gaza with the help of the deputy commander of the Palestinian security service Hussein Mashrawi, and partly through quiet encounters in the past week in Qatar between Abu Mazen and Hamas leader Khaled Mashal, brokered by the Emir of Qatar Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani.
At the last of these meetings, on Tuesday, Jan. 3, Abbas offered Hamas six ministerial portfolios in the post-election Palestinian administration.
Sharon‘s eclipse could hasten Abbas’ downfall
Hamas is therefore fighting tooth and nail against heavy Fatah pressure to maintain the election on time. The group reckons that if postponed, the poll would never take place at all and it would forfeit its big chance of a formidable stake in Palestinian government.
Conversely, all Hamas rivals are pushing Abbas hard for postponement and the preservation of the present anarchic status quo in Palestinian areas.
All these secret moves were moving forward smoothly towards accord until Wednesday Jan.4, at 21:25 local time, when the process was abruptly cut short by the onset of the massive brain hemorrhage that felled Ariel Sharon.
The ailing prime minister never cooked up his key policy decisions in any kitchen cabinets or by consensus with ministers or advisers. His decision-making was a lone process. His close aides only discovered a new Sharon decision when his guidelines were disseminated down the chain of command. His game plan for Hamas was beached in midstream by his illness, throwing Washington’s master plan and Hamas’ hopes off-course. The crisis has tossed Israel into uncertain waters where terra firma may stay out of reach before its own general election on March 28.
Washington is meanwhile faced with three dilemmas:
1. Ariel Sharon’s eclipse in the Israel’s political arena – temporary or permanent – could hasten Abu Mazen’s downfall.
2. The delicate political situation in Jerusalem has given Syrian president Bashar Assad a new escape route at the very moment that Washington had counted on his being finally snagged. The beleaguered Syrian leader will now rally the army and security agencies around him to defend the regimes against dangers arising from the crisis in Israel.
3. Al Qaeda and most of the rampant Palestinian groups may press their advantage at a vulnerable point in Israeli’s affairs to strike hard.