Two scenarios

In the past few days we have been presented with a new disengagement plan from Israeli Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert (his weekend press interviews) and a preliminary political program reportedly delivered by Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh to President Mahmoud Abbas.

Olmert’s intentions are fairly explicit–an unusual situation at election time in Israel, when candidates tend to stick to generalities. He will allow Hamas an opportunity to present itself as a viable negotiating partner but has little faith that this will happen. When it doesn’t, he will proceed with further settlement dismantling based on a national dialogue. But he has already determined the borders and will adjust the security fence accordingly: expanded settlement blocs, the Jerusalem Jewish neighborhoods and holy basin area with a few surrounding Arab neighborhoods, a land link to Maaleh Adumim, and the Jordan Valley as security border.

The Palestinian reaction to this plan is uniformly negative. Hamas leader Khaled Mishal termed it a "declaration of war".

Haniyeh’s principles are in general equally plain. All forms of resistance (read: suicide bombings) are legitimate. Existing agreements will be "reassessed . . . in accordance with the rights of the Palestinian people". The right of return means return to "homes and property". Continuation of the current calm, or ceasefire, is conditioned on "the end of all Israeli aggression and the release of prisoners". There is no mention of a two-state solution, recognition of Israel, or the 1967 borders as the basis of a Palestinian state. International relations will be based on an attempt to "enlist Arab and Islamic support… in every sector".

Both of these political declarations are consistent with everything we know about the two emerging governments. Both are undoubtedly the basis for further refinement, deliberation and compromise. Haniyeh still needs the blessing of Abbas, who reportedly termed the principles "vague", in order to form a government. Olmert still needs to get elected and form a coalition. But taking these schemes as our point of departure, we can begin to define the parameters within which the coming months will play themselves out.

In a best-case scenario, Israel under a Kadima-Labor government will seek to proceed with the dismantling of additional settlements in the West Bank, initially through consultation with the settlers, ultimately through legislation that offers generous compensation, and with an American presidential blessing that quietly buries the roadmap. Though Olmert does not discuss this explicitly, Israel will maintain temporary military control over all or most of the evacuated areas as a security precaution and in order to deny Hamas the claim of having liberated additional territory. Hamas, despite its objections to Israel’s unilateral heavy-handedness, will nevertheless perceive a sufficient incentive to maintain the ceasefire.

Hamas, in turn, will integrate independent and Fateh-affiliated actors into its coalition, and will merge its own armed forces with those of the PA. Though it will not make all the concessions demanded by Israel and the international community, some small degree of trust and basis for communication will nevertheless develop and a modicum of aid will flow. The Gaza passages will be at least partially open, and Gaza-West Bank economic links will continue. Fateh will regroup, Abu Mazen will exercise some leadership, and their pressure, coupled with Hamas’ need for both funds and minimum infrastructure coordination with Israel, will contribute to the emergence of a modest new modus vivendi that could last a few years.

In contrast, in a worst-case scenario Hamas will encourage or at least ignore terrorist attacks, and will nourish its own terrorist infrastructure while expanding contacts with Syria and Iran ("Arab and Islamic support"). It will begin Islamizing Palestinian society. Israel will confront an expanding circle of armed Islamists, installed in democratic elections, on three fronts: Gaza, the West Bank and southern Lebanon. Iran will proceed with its military nuclear program and will strive to integrate the Arab Islamists in its sphere of influence.

Unrest will grow in Jordan and Egypt, sparked by sympathy and support for Hamas. Israel will completely sever links between Gaza and the West Bank and will seek to cooperate with Egypt in isolating Gaza, while encouraging Fateh to recoup power in the West Bank. The Paris agreement that controls Israeli-Palestinian economic integration will become defunct, de facto if not de jure. The likelihood of a broad military confrontation of some sort will increase. The international community will look for ways to isolate the worsening conflict.

Reality, as is usually the case, will almost certainly fall somewhere in between these two extreme scenarios. Perhaps the most promising conclusion we can draw from them is that, while the future of Israel-Hamas relations does not look good, it is still not set in stone.