Hamas capitalizes on Russia tripas Kadima continue to slide in polls

By Leslie Susser, JTA

JERUSALEM — After a successful visit to Moscow, Hamas leaders claim “the wall” of diplomatic isolation Israel is trying to build around the newly empowered organization is collapsing.

But Israel is still confident that the international community will cut off funds to a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority and back Israeli moves for a second unilateral pullback from Palestinian territory.

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The Moscow trip perfectly served Hamas’ strategy: to gain as much international recognition as possible without making concessions to Israel.

Following talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal declared that the organization did not recognize Israel’s right to exist, and that the internationally accepted “road map” peace plan was no longer relevant.

If the Russians had hoped to score diplomatic points by persuading Hamas to accept the West’s conditions for dialogue — recognition of Israel, acceptance of previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements and repudiation of violence — they failed utterly.

Hamas, however, succeeded in getting a Russian promise to urge the West not to withhold funds earmarked for the Palestinians.

Hamas has had other diplomatic successes. Its leaders have held talks in Turkey, and have been invited to South Africa and Venezuela. They also claim some European countries are holding secret contacts with them.

More importantly, European funding for the Palestinians has not yet dried up. The European Union is releasing $143 million in emergency aid to the Palestinians, on the grounds that the Palestinian Authority is on the verge of economic collapse, and that Hamas has not yet formally taken the reins of power.

With an eye to retaining Western aid, without which it couldn’t function, Hamas has been putting out mixed messages. On the one hand it says it won’t recognize Israel; on the other, that it’s ready for a long truce.

In a rare interview with Israel’s Ma’ariv newspaper, Alistair Crooke, a former E.U. adviser on security who knows the Palestinian scene well, put a positive gloss on Hamas’ position. Crooke argues that a real process of change is underway in the organization, and that it would be ready to end the conflict if Israel withdraws to the pre-1967 boundaries, known as the Green Line.

He says Hamas wants a mutually agreed, long-term cease-fire so that it can concentrate on Palestinian institution-building in preparation for full statehood alongside Israel.

Crooke, who now runs the London-based Forum for Conflict Resolution, recently met with top Hamas people and clearly was getting a message across for them. But it’s not clear whether Hamas is genuinely ready for some sort of accommodation with Israel, or whether Crooke is merely being used as a pawn by Hamas in a game aimed at impressing European and other Western donors.

For now, the Israeli government does not believe Hamas is genuine. While the Hamas leaders were in Moscow, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni was in Europe trying to preempt an erosion in the E.U.’s hard line on Hamas.

In talks in Vienna, Paris and London, Livni argued that it’s essential that Europe keep up its diplomatic and economic pressure on Hamas. She also maintained that it would be a mistake to try to circumvent Hamas and negotiate with P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas, from the somewhat more moderate Fatah Party, because he’s in no position to deliver.

Indeed, Israeli policy is based on pressuring Hamas to moderate its positions and, if that fails, convincing the international community that there is no peace partner on the Palestinian side and that, therefore, Israel has no option but to set its borders unilaterally.

Thus, the main goal of Livni’s European trip seemed to be to set the stage for a second unilateral withdrawal from Palestinian territory, if her party, Kadima, wins the March 28 general election.

On Sunday, Kadima announced its plans for a second disengagement. Avi Dichter, former head of Israel’s Shin Bet security service, outlined the details: Israel will dismantle isolated West Bank settlements, relocating the settlers in large settlement blocs close to the Green Line, or in Israel proper.

The Israel Defense Forces, however, will remain inside the evacuated territory, the way it has done in the northern West Bank since the evacuation of four settlements there last summer. Dichter calls it “a civilian, but not a military disengagement.”

Dichter explained that since there is no Palestinian peace partner, Israel, too, sees the road map as a dead letter, and that it would negotiate the new boundary lines with the international community, especially the United States, rather than with the Hamas-led Palestinians.

Hanan Krystal, a political analyst for Israel Radio, says that by officially announcing its disengagement plan, Kadima has set the March 28 election agenda.

“The election will now be a referendum on a second disengagement,” he declared.

The timing of Kadima’s announcement may have been intended to boost the party’s electoral prospects. Over the past few weeks, polls have shown Kadima’s share of the vote steadily declining.

Pollsters, who initially paid little heed to the loss of a seat or two, now are talking about a trend. Weekend polls show Kadima getting some 37 seats, well below the 43 it had three weeks ago. Most of the gains have been made by the right — which may not be surprising, given Hamas’ accession to power, which has allowed the right-wing parties to paint a picture of an Iranian-backed, Al-Qaida-supported radical state on Israel’s doorstep.

The Kadima plan is intended to show that the centrist party has a realistic answer to the threat, and one more likely to bring about stability and calm than anything the right or left can offer.

Still, for the first time, there is talk of Kadima not forming the next government. Former Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom of the Likud is openly pressing for a Labor-Likud coalition with a rotating premiership: first Labor’s Amir Peretz, then the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu.

Peretz dismisses the idea out of hand, but Shalom argues that if the swing away from Kadima continues, things could change dramatically. With the election just three weeks away, the public response to Kadima’s disengagement plan could be crucial.