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Dan Diker: The hidden costs of a ceasefire

Dan Diker is Director of the Jerusalem based Institute for Contemporary Affairs and serves as a Middle East analyst for Israel’s Channel One English News. I met Dan this past summer in Israel. He has sent us the following observations in connection with reports of American pressure on Israel for a “ceasefire” with Hamas:

Reports in Israel today of U.S. pressure to button up a ceasefire with Hamas in advance of President Bush’s upcoming visit to Israel are worrying but not surprising.

As happens frequently in this region, the current moment’s geopolitical circumstances to reach what the West understands as a “cease fire” seems inviting and the players are lining up. Israel and Washington need quiet in Gaza before Bush’s scheduled visit in mid-May to allow Palestinian and Israeli teams to shape up the Declaration of Principles of a prospective “shelf agreement” peace deal. But while the idea of a ceasefire always seems attractive to Western actors, some attention needs to be paid to context.

Cairo is brokering a cease fire between Hamas and Israel because it believes in so doing it can reestablish its lost status as the main power broker on the Palestinian issue, help reunite Fatah and Hamas and thereby dilute Hamas’ power. At the same time a nervous Cairo wants to help satisfy its Hamas neighbor to the North-who also wants a deal now –and focus the Iranian backed group’s attention away from subverting Mubarak’s leadership, which it has been doing very well lately.

Mubarak has been worried about Iranian backed Hamas’ latest promise to blow up the Egyptian Gaza border for the second time since January of this year. Cairo is still reeling from the first border destruction in which Egypt watched helplessly for two weeks as 750,000 Gazans flooded across the Egyptian border for food and supplies while Iranian backed Islamic terror operatives including al Qaeda crossed back and forth from Gaza into Sinai unfettered with tons of weaponry and lots of money. Mubarak, having seen 122 MM Iranian Grad rockets hit the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, said recently in a moment of personal alarm that Egypt “now shares a border with Iran”.

This is also a good time for Hamas to sign on to a cease fire, particularly because “ceasefire” for Hamas and fellow Islamists means something very different than it does for Washington and Jerusalem. It’s either a Tahdiya (a unilateral and temporary “calming” to allow Hamas and fellow terror operatives to rest, rearm, and reenergize for the next round of conflict) or something that could be implemented by Hamas as a Hudna (a longer term arrangement with the enemy in the conflict). But there is no strategic difference between Tahdiya and Hudna. Both concepts are essentially versions of a “seventh inning stretch” in Hamas’s Iranian backed war to destroy Israel, defeat the U.S.-led West, and create an Islamic superstate across the region.

Most importantly, Hamas is interested in playing along with the idea of a ”calmer, gentler” Gaza at this moment to lend legitimacy to its aggressive and unprecedented play for international legitimacy as the one real Palestinian leadership that has already succeeded where U.S.-backed PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has not. Former President Jimmy Carter’s visit to the region last week and his meeting with Iran’s top Hamas agent Khaled Mashaal in Damascus were very helpful in legitimizing Hamas while politically undermining if not burying Abbas among Palestinians.

Now Hamas can say to the Palestinian public that it has a gained foothold of legitimacy even in the West while conceding nothing and has already established a sovereign Islamist emirate in Gaza that is not, from a Palestinian viewpoint, the vassal state of the U.S. and Israel that Abbas is negotiating with Olmert.

Hamas’ central strategic goal is to use a period of calm to consolidate its influence and prepare to take over the Palestinian areas of the West Bank, thereby replicating its leadership in Gaza. For his part, Abbas sits powerless and lonely in his Ramallah headquarters, unable to enforce law and order across the West Bank even with tens of millions of security dollars approved by Congress and coordinated by the constant presence of top level security envoys (U.S. generals) who could have trained multiple divisions of U.S. special forces in the U.S. and Iraq over the same period that they have tried and failed to train and mobilize an effective, centralized and disciplined, and loyal Palestinian national security force.

The Israelis, Americans, Jordanians, Egyptians and most of all the Palestinians know well that if the Israel Defense Forces were to withdraw from any part of the West Bank they are currently securing, Hamas and fellow Islmaic groups will slip in to the ensuing security vacuum in and fire rockets at Ben Gurion airport and the greater Tel Aviv coastal area lying below the hills of the West Bank. This would destabilize Jordan to the East, threaten Israel to the West and energize jihadis across the region.

The current U.S.-inspired attempts to finalize a Hamas ceasefire and a declaration of principles between the PA and Israel are in reality undermining Abbas, improving Hamas’ ability and preparedness to attack Israel, and weakening Egypt. At the same time Iran’s armed, trained, and financed Gaza proxy force gains support among Palestinians and greater diplomatic legitimacy in some quarters in Europe, and thanks to Mr Carter, perhaps among American’s who have embraced his book Palestine: Peace, Not Apartheid.

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