Thursday, April 28, 2005

You first. No, after you. But I insist... 

We may be witnessing the opening rounds in a "you first" standoff of the kind not seen since the days of Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat at Camp David:

This time, it isn't two leaders standing at a door, but their respective constituencies, and this time a lot more than a photo-op is riding on who blinks first. Here's an arm-chair, Monday-morning pundit's view. Take it with a truck load of salt.

If Abbas goes first, as is presently scheduled, he will lose any options he might have had should elections give a large piece of the Palestinian pie to Hamas, which seems likely today. Meanwhile, Sharon should be about as eager to load up those disengagement trucks as my kids are to get started on their homework.

Delay is already in the air in both cases. The Palestinians already discuss delaying their elections now that Hamas threatens a jihad on the ballot box:

Palestinian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Information Nabil Shaath cited the ongoing Israeli occupation as well as the intended Israeli withdrawal from the Gaza Strip as reasons for holding off the elections.

"The question really has to do with the Israeli pullout of Gaza during that time, and our fear that the Israelis might make it difficult for people to do real election campaigns and have real freedom of movement," he said.
While Shaath can't stop himself from spinning these excuses for delay as being more bad Israeli behavior, the thinking behind that spin is clear: delay until after the disengagement suits the ruling party just fine. Why? It gives them time to play the disengagement as a Fatah victory in time for elections.

Sharon has already moved the disengagement back three weeks. His desire to keep the withdrawal from being presented as a "victory for terrorism" (even if it is one) certainly could bring him to simply reschedule the date as "a few days after Palestinian elections" and then just hunker down until then. This lets him avoid Abbas campaigning on a platform of having pushed Israel out, and allows him to keep his finger near the emergency stop button in case of a Hamas-ruled government. This could even be a potential planned offramp to get himself off the path of disengagement -- "I can't turn Gaza over to Hamas" -- but he certainly can't count on that.

There are a couple of other forks in the road if involved players want to change direction.

The first is that Sharon may not wish to risk his "peace legacy", since any process of negotiation will be placed on Terry Schiavo's feeding tube for a few decades even if Hamas simply does well in the elections without actually winning. If so, Sharon could play along with Abbas, letting the disengagement happen before elections, and coordinating things with the other side so that Abbas can lead the victory parade.

Would Hamas sit still for this, continuing the present tactical and temporary reduction in violence, waiting until after the disengagement to light the fuses once more? Is it conceivable Hamas could march at the back of an Abbas-led parade without squeezing off a few shots or lobbing a couple grenades to stop it? Only if you believe the people whose motto is "better living through suicide" wants to slip into organizational senility, slowly decaying into nothing but a network of kindergartens and ambulances (with empty explosives compartments).

Will Abbas stop them? Only if "pretty please" is enough to get the job done. Otherwise, while the summer may begin with Sharon and Abbas dancing the "you first, no you" tango, Hamas will likely have the last dance. The question will be which dance will that be: a Hamas election victory, followed by cancellation of the disengagement and the cryogenic freezing of negotiations, or the resumption of all out hostilities.
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