JERUSALEM - The most recent moves on the chessboard of Middle East politics have had the surprising effect of increasing the potency of Hamas, the Islamic Resistance Movement. At least for the moment, those religious-terrorists-on-the-run have reinvented themselves as statesmen possessing something that looks a lot like power. While Hamas has always been viciously hostile to Israel, this week it holds Israel's fragile peace in its hands.
As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas pose side by side for the cameras, Hamas hovers unseen in the background, confident that it made this event possible and can easily bring it crashing to an end. By joining with lesser terrorists in a dubious and ill-defined truce, Hamas has put itself in a position to play a pivotal role in the politics of the near future. Without giving away anything serious, it has begun the long march from lunatic fringe to power broker. Any day now, some damn fool will call it "moderate," unless it decides not to be.
Its leaders are likely astonished that this first step was so simple. They merely signed on to a hudna, an Arabic word for truce or ceasefire that Israelis claim can be translated as "I need to pause for breath." Israelis are accustomed to sudden changes in their prospects but they understandably fear yet another hideously failed "peace process," so they have received the latest news with the skepticism it deserves. They enthusiastically welcome any pause in the killing, and realize that any road to peace is worth considering. But at the International Policy Institute for Counter-Terrorism in Herzliya the other day, Jonathan Fighel, a retired Israeli colonel and now a resident scholar, explained why he sees this latest development as just about the nicest thing that ever happened to Hamas.
It has agreed to stop sending suicide bombers to murder Israeli civilians, but only if Israel reciprocates appropriately. Israel must refrain from assassinating Hamas leaders, close down some settlements in the occupied territories, and release some Palestinian criminals from jail. How many settlements must be dismantled, and how fast? How many prisoners must be set free?
That's for Hamas to say. It will judge Israel's performance and act accordingly. If it decides the Sharon government hasn't kept its part of the bargain, Hamas can reopen hostilities, without advance notice, by fitting up a few teenagers with suicide belts and sending them to Jaffa Street. And who imagines that Hamas will be satisfied for long? It has always been, as Israelis say, rejectionist. It doesn't want a better Israel, or a smaller Israel. It wants no Israel at all.
But Hamas will now set the agenda -- not the United States, not Israel, and certainly not the Palestinian Authority (PA), the relatively secular force which Hamas has outflanked and outkilled. Money will continue to flow to Hamas, which now has time to prepare for future battles and the freedom to decide when they will take place. It's already better organized and better disciplined than any other outfit in the region, governments aside. As Fighel says, "Hamas is the star of this new era," the era that opened last Sunday. That's the role it has yearned for since it was founded in the 1980s.
There's a certain naivete in the way its prospects are discussed. James Bennet, writing in The New York Times on Tuesday, said: "Hamas leaders are gambling that the ceasefire will fail." That's hardly a gamble. They can make it fail whenever they choose, and their decision will be determined by their long-term goal. Like their sponsors in Iran, they plan eventually to bring all of the Middle East, including the sliver now called Israel, under the umbrella of an Islamist government.
Abbas, it's generally agreed, has enough firepower to close down Hamas and thus eliminate his and the PA's chief rival for power. He's apparently rejected that course, not out of affection but because he realizes that killing fellow Muslims (even radical Islamists) would be an unseemly beginning to his career as prime minister. It could even start a civil war.
While the Palestinian Authority worries about the intentions of Hamas, it must also deal with the devious and erratic Yasser Arafat, its chairman. Abbas and his nervous colleagues treat Arafat gently, like a crazy uncle who has to be invited to every family party but might at any time erupt in anger and drive everyone else away. He's a catastrophe waiting to happen, but who will dare to ignore or denigrate the only larger-than-life Palestinian of the past 50 years? He stands alone as the founder of the Palestinian nation, such as it is, and he can make trouble for anyone who fails to pay homage to him. He can sabotage any agreement that seems likely to reduce his own stature. He also, of course, knows just what his fellow PA leaders think of him. While Abbas feels threatened by Hamas, Arafat feels threatened by Abbas.
If we believe the opinion polls, Palestinians think Arafat shouldn't run things but shouldn't be mistreated either. They don't admire him, they just love him. And while they don't much like Abbas (his approval rating remains stuck in the single digits), they think he should be in charge of the government anyway, at least until they find someone better. If Arafat's popularity has declined since the mid-1990s, Abbas hasn't yet climbed out of the ranks of functionaries. He has the words but not the music. He lacks a myth.
For a year the Israelis have kept Arafat trapped in his West Bank bunker in Ramallah, which now looks like an Israeli building that's just been bombed by one of Arafat's agents (before he became a moderate, of course). Abbas and his colleagues fear that confinement makes Arafat feel insecure, not to say antsy, and may encourage him in behaviour that would be irresponsible even by his standards. Abbas might prefer that Sharon drop the chairman down a deep well, but instead he asked this week that Arafat be allowed to travel freely. As it turned out, Sharon's new-found amiability didn't go that far. He said Arafat could have a one-way ticket to the Gaza Strip, no more.
As the American-managed peace-planning unfolds on television and in the newspapers, it stirs in many Israelis an uncomfortably familiar feeling. They've seen this movie before and didn't like it the first time. In the 1990s their leaders, beginning with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, waltzed them toward something that promised to be peace but turned out to be a new and more acute stage of the war. That was just the other day, and impossible to forget.
In the 1990s, as now, the Americans and the Israelis thought they had found a way to manage and satisfy the Palestinians. When the first Gulf War ended, Rabin decided not to let the Palestine Liberation Organization die (as it seemed likely to do) but instead encouraged Arafat and his friends to set up the new PA, with funding from peace-loving nations everywhere. The PA would be, Rabin said, Israel's "peace partner." Arafat could be relied upon to control the Palestinians.
The other day Yosi Klein Halevi, who produces for The New Republic some of the best writing on Israel, said: "Rabin was my favourite leader in 1992, but he did it wrong." Klein Halevi recently saw a bumper sticker that said, "It was all your fault, Rabin." He didn't really disagree. That would have been heresy a few years ago. After Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli extremist in 1995, he was treated like a saint; Bill Clinton's eulogy made it appear that Rabin and his colleagues were only inches away from a resolution of the Arab-Israeli struggle. Now, of course, we know that Arafat was in the process of making fools of everybody (including his own advisers). As the Oslo story ended, Israel was surrounded by well-funded terrorists in Gaza, the West Bank, and on the Lebanon border. A bad situation had been made much worse.
Israelis who questioned the Oslo peace process in those days were considered out of touch, rigidly conservative, and unnecessarily pessimistic. But anyone questioning the current plan is considered, at worst, cautious. Israel has seen so many brave and beautiful hopes crushed by violence that its citizens hesitate to hope. Big-city Israelis are no longer hiding in their apartments (as they were in the dreadful bomb-a-week spring of 2002, when only video stores and takeout restaurants did good business). Today the streets are once more full of life and excitement, the recent Harry Potter movie brought out unthinkably huge crowds, and teenagers appear to be doing what teenagers do everywhere, hanging out. Less than three weeks after the horrendous June 11 bus bombing on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, there were plenty of customers for the kosher sushi at Sakura, just 300 metres away. Only foreigners are absent, tourists being notoriously easy to discourage.
Even so, the possibility of violence remains everyone's minute-to-minute obsession. As one Israeli told me the other day, "We have lost the assumptions that guide normal life." Even funerals have guards, and wedding invitations often carry a line, "Security will be provided." Each citizen tries in a different way to construct a framework of security. People inquire whether a store has guards before going shopping. Everyone knows someone who has been directly touched by the violence. Children suffer from acute anxiety, and so do their parents. No one moves without a cellphone, because no one believes the truce will hold and it's necessary, when a bomb goes off, for relatives and friends to exchange instant reassurance.
And yet optimism breaks through. Even the Israelis are surprised by the hope they discover in themselves, though often they can't explain it. Klein Halevi can even say that the last year has been, all in all, pretty good, considering. "We went from one terrorist attack a week, or two, to one every few weeks. The army has done a marvellous job. The war in Iraq has been good for the Middle East. It has signalled that the old rules don't apply anymore."
He's come to understand that the conflict persists partly because Jews and Arabs reinforce each other's strongest fears. The Arabs' great trauma was colonialism and the Jews' great trauma was the Holocaust. So Jews charging through the territories come across as colonialists, and Arabs cannot keep themselves from speaking the language of genocide. "We are colonialists to them," Klein Halevi says, "and they are Nazis to us."
Even the Israelis are sometimes mystified by their refusal to give up. They retreat into automatic responses when asked about it. At Tel Aviv University, Dov Elbaum, a teacher of Jewish philosophy, was asked if he was optimistic. "Of course," he said, "I have to be optimistic. I live here." I've heard variations on that sentence half a dozen times. Sami Michael, an Iraq-born novelist, said: "People ask us, you must be frightened all the time, yet you sit there in your restaurant in Haifa enjoying life. How do you do it? I don't know how we do it. We just do it."
Israelis tend to speak bluntly, their tone sometimes coloured by the resentment of a people tired of being misunderstood. But sometimes the words soar. David Horovitz, the editor of The Jerusalem Report, after describing his worries about the welfare of his children, said: "As a responsible parent I should live elsewhere. As a rooted Jew I should be here." For now he remains in Israel, living with his family on the front lines, conscious that he's part of the struggle that now dominates world politics, a struggle Hamas will likely promote for a long time to come. "The great divide," Horovitz says, is "between people who appreciate the divine gift of life and those who belong to the death cult." Over on the other side of that great divide, Hamas waits, and ponders its next move.