Tel Aviv - If Ariel Sharon weren't in a deep coma, he would have jumped out of his bed for joy. The Hamas victory fulfills his most ardent hopes.
For a whole year he did everything possible to undermine Mahmoud Abbas. His logic was quite obvious: The Americans wanted him to negotiate with Abbas. Such negotiations would inevitably have led to a situation that would compel him to give up almost all of the West Bank. Sharon had no intention of doing so. So he had to get rid of Abbas and his moderate image.
During the last year, the situation of the Palestinians got worse from day to day. The West Bank settlements were continuously enlarged. The Wall, which cuts off about 10 per cent of the West Bank, was nearing completion. No important prisoners were released. The aim was to impress on the Palestinians that Abbas is weak ("a chicken without feathers," as Sharon put it).
The message to the Palestinians was clear: "Israel understands only the language of force." Now the Palestinians have put in power a party that speaks this language. People who believe in conspiracy theories will assert that it's all part of a devious Israeli plan. Some even believe that Hamas was an Israeli invention right from the beginning. That is, of course, a wild exaggeration. But it is indeed the case that in the years before the first intifada the Islamic organization was the only Palestinian group that had practically a free run in the Occupied Territories.
Moreover, while all political institutions were banned, and even Palestinians who worked for peace were arrested for carrying out illegal political activity, no one could control what was happening in the mosques. "As long as they are praying, they are not shooting" was the innocent opinion in the Israeli military government.
When the first intifada broke out at the end of 1987, this was proved wrong. Hamas was formed partly in order to compete with the Islamic Jihad fighters. Within a short time, it became the core of the armed uprising. But for almost a year, the Israeli Security Service did not act against Hamas. All this happened more through stupidity than design.
What now? Well, a strong feeling of déjà vu. In the 70s and 80s, the Israeli government declared that it would never, ever negotiate with the PLO. "They are terrorists. They have a charter that calls for the destruction of Israel. Arafat is a monster, a second Hitler. So, never, never, never...."
In the end, after much bloodshed, Israel and the PLO recognized each other and the Oslo agreement was signed. Now we are hearing the same tune again. "Terrorists. Murderers. The Hamas charter calls for the destruction of Israel. We shall never, never, never negotiate with them."
All this is very welcome to Sharon's Kadima party, which openly calls for the unilateral annexation of territory. It will help the Likud and the Labour party hawks whose mantra is "We have no partner for peace," meaning "To hell with peace."
Gradually, the tone will change. Both sides, and the Americans, too, will climb down from the tall tree. Hamas will state that it is ready for negotiations and find some religious basis for this. The Israeli government (probably headed by Ehud Olmert) will bow to reality and American pressure.
Let's pray that not too much blood is spilled before that point is reached.
Uri Avnery, a member of the Israeli peace group Gush Shalom, is a former member of the Knesset.