Israeli right may gain ground

Hamas victory is likely to influence parliamentary elections slated for March.

There is a new player in Israel's parliamentary election campaign - and its name is Hamas.

While the Islamic militant group's election landslide last week will overhaul Palestinian politics, the shock of a new Hamas-led government may also alter the landscape of a parliamentary vote in Israel this March.

Hamas's ascendancy is liable to cast the unilateral pullbacks supported by Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and by a majority of the Israeli public in a more troubling light. Meanwhile, the shock of a new Palestinian government run by a group formally committed to Israel's destruction has offered the Israeli right and Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu new ammunition to stage an electoral comeback.

"We are in a struggle against Hamastan,'' said Mr. Netanyahu in an interview with Israel Radio Sunday, using a nickname he has repeated frequently over the weekend.

"Facing an organization of this sort, we need to switch diskettes. The concept of folding in the face of terror is what lifted Hamas," he said. "The last thing that we should be doing is to giving them more withdrawals for free.''

The lead of Mr. Olmert's Kadima party in public opinion polls reflects broad approval of the September withdrawal from the Gaza Strip led by Ariel Sharon, who has been in a coma since suffering a stroke earlier this month.

Some observers have suggested that the Hamas victory could actually help Kadima by convincing Israelis that there is no Palestinian interlocutor for negotiations, and that the unilateral withdrawals of Mr. Sharon are the only means of determining a border with the Palestinians.

But with Hamas at the helm, new withdrawals in the West Bank will be a tougher sell. The Gaza pullback was easier to accept because the withdrawal was ultimately coordinated with a moderate Palestinian administration dominated by President Mahmoud Abbas.

Future pullbacks would leave a power vacuum that could be filled by Islamic militants, stirring memories of Israel's abandonment of southern Lebanon to the guerrillas of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah.

"The main question now is whether unilateral withdrawal, which was the presumed favorite option of Kadima, is still viable,'' says Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalem Center, a Jerusalem-based research institute. "That's because we're not talking about handing over territory to a corrupt, anarchic, terror-supporting Fatah, but to an Iranian proxy that's far more dangerous.''

In the days following the election, Hamas leaders in both Gaza and Damascus, Syria, reiterated the organization's stance against recognizing Israel or disarming the military wing responsible for years of suicide bombings targeting Israelis.

The prospect of Hamas-led government is likely to be used by Likud in the election in much the same way it invoked former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in the party's campaigns to drive home the need for a strong uncompromising leader.

Hamas's rise "creates an atmosphere of more hawkish views,'' said Hebrew University political-science professor Avraham Diskin. On the other hand, without a new round of fighting, the shift to the right probably isn't dramatic enough to lift Netanyahu to victory, he says.

Israel's initial response to the vote, which gave Hamas control of about three-fifths of the 132-seat Palestinian legislature, has been to rule out any cooperation with an administration dominated by Islamists who advocate the destruction of the Jewish state.

At a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Olmert vowed to cut off contacts with the Palestinian Authority if it is run by Hamas. The leader of the left-wing Labor Party, Amir Peretz, also opposes talks with Hamas.

But Netanyahu and other Likud lawmakers are already calling on the government to take action immediately.

The Likud chairman says Israel should freeze all transfers of customs taxes that Israel collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. Meanwhile, a prominent Likud lawmaker appealed to the government to reroute Israel's separation barrier deeper into the West Bank in order to protect Jerusalem's main Tel Aviv-bound highway.

"We were afraid of the Oslo Accords, and we got terrorism. We cautioned and then got Kassem rockets on Sderot and Ashkelon,'' said Yuval Steinitz, a member of Likud who heads the parliament's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, referring to towns near the Gaza border. "Now we are warning that if there is the same move, that there won't only be Kassems on Sderot, but also on the entrance to Jerusalem, Ben Gurion Airport, and Tel Aviv.''

Politicians on Israel's left also blamed the government for helping Hamas into power, but criticized Sharon's failure to strengthen Palestinian President Abbas with humanitarian concessions.

"The honeymoon for Ehud Olmert as acting prime minister ended on [Thursday],'' wrote Haaretz diplomatic correspondent Aluf Ben. "The Hamas victory has confronted him, for the first time, with a diplomatic and security crisis of international interest. In the coming days his judgment will be judged against the dramatic development on the Palestinian side.''

With the new Hamas-led government taking shape as Israeli elections start heating up, Olmert will be forced to articulate just what the ban on contacts with the Palestinians means - for example, would Israel cut off the electricity it supplies? - and how that will affect the future of Israel's occupation of the West Bank.

Whatever the response, the election is still Olmert's to lose, Mr. Klein Halevi says.

"We all agree that Hamas is beyond the pale,'' he says, "but beyond that we don't agree what to do about it."

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