Image: 030616HAMAS_vmed3p.jpg
Hooded members of the Hamas military wing march in the beach refugee camp in Gaza City on June 14.
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msnbc.com

By orchestrating two deadly attacks in the wake of the most hopeful flurry of Mideast negotiating in years, the Hamas movement once again showed that no politician, whether Palestinian, Israeli or American, can credibly talk peace without considering the Hamas position. Yet the resulting backlash and pressure for a truce has revealed a split inside Hamas that could be good news for President Bush’s new Mideast diplomacy.

HAMAS IS A COMPLEX movement that has mixed terror, charity and pragmatism to become a force even superpowers must reckon with. By rejecting anything short of the complete destruction of Israel, the group has found that when things are at their worst between Israelis and Palestinians, things go well for Hamas.

“They are the self-styled guardians of the Palestinian revolution,” says Alon Pinkas, Israel’s consul general in New York. “When negotiations fail, they thrive.”

After 32 months of violence, most Mideast analysts believe Hamas to be the most popular force in Palestinian society. The attacks that followed the optimistic pledges of the Aqaba summit — an attack on an Israeli border post that killed 4 soldiers, and a horrific bus bombing last week that slaughtered 17 civilians — were viewed as a Hamas move to destroy whatever cautious hope had lingered for a few days after the American, Palestinian and Israeli leaders met.

For many, the sense of deja vu is overpowering. In 1996, Hamas and its allies in Islamic Jihad mounted a campaign of bus bombings during an Israeli general election campaign that are credited with preventing the Labor Prime Minister Shimon Peres, successor to the assassinated Yitzhak Rabin, from holding on to office. Many date the unraveling of the last grand effort to reach a comprehensive settlement — the Oslo peace process — with the subsequent election of right-winger Benjamin Netanyahu, who opposed the whole endeavor.

THE ROAD MAP

The current effort, minted at the Jordanian seaport of Aqaba on June 5, featured some important firsts: Bush’s first foray into bare-knuckle Mideast diplomacy; a right-wing Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, talking of dismantling settlements; a new Palestinian Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, condemning any attacks on civilians and waxing eloquent about the suffering of Jews through history.

More substantively, it committed Israel and the Palestinian Authority to a rigid schedule or “road map” of concessions that would lead to an international conference on “final status” issues within a year and a comprehensive peace between Israel and other Arab states within three.

Hope, not surprisingly, succumbed quickly to the new Hamas onslaught, however, and the Israeli counter-punches that followed. Since the summit, some 60 people — on both sides and primarily civilian non-combatants — have been killed.

GLIMMER OR MIRAGE?

As familiar as this violent spiral may seem, some analysts believe there may be a hopeful glimmer in the fact that Hamas, presumably pleased that its violence once again has destroyed talk of peace, is still talking about a truce with Abbas and his allies. The two sides continued talking Tuesday in Gaza, with Abbas personally taking part.

“You would think Hamas would be dancing a victory jig, not talking truce,” says one U.S. State Department official, who requested anonymity. “But they are under a lot of pressure, from the funding side because of the war on terror, on the political side from Arafat and the European Union and the Russians. They may be willing to cool off for now.”

Pinkas, who has served as a senior aide on foreign policy issues in both Labor and Likud governments, says these signs are taken seriously in Israel.

“Hamas is not a homogeneous organization and there are several factions,” he says. “They’re not split along ideological lines or even policy lines. What divides them are tactical issues.”

Still, Pinkas says the Israeli government regards the current truce talks as a strictly tactical maneuver, one highly unlikely to produce a cease-fire in the sense that an American might understand it. Hamas, he says, ultimately will resort to terror.

“The split is among hard-liners: those who would be willing to call such a truce to lessen international pressure on the Palestinian Authority to crack down, which could lead to bloodshed inside Palestinian society, and those hard-liners who say the Palestinian war of independence rejects a two-state solution and so any talks with Israel are useless,” Pinkas says.

REASON FOR HOPE?

Richard Murphy, assistant secretary of state for Middle Eastern affairs during the Reagan administration, says Hamas is “showing signs of being somewhat divided, and that’s the best news I’ve seen in some time.”

InsertArt(1953038)Murphy, now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, says securing a truce with Hamas is vital if Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, is to survive.

“If they suspend attacks for a while at least, that gives Abu Mazen the time he needs to build some strength, and he will need that strength eventually for a confrontation with them over the bigger question.”

If any distance whatsoever is traveled along the “road map” that was the centerpiece of the Aqaba summit, one of the most daunting forks in the road will find the Palestinian Authority and Hamas at odds. At the very basic level, Murphy notes, Hamas opposes the idea of a “two-state” solution and views any talks toward that end as heresy.

PRESSURE TO CONFORM

Many Israelis believe Palestinian President Yasser Arafat could force Hamas and its more fundamentalist ally, Islamic Jihad, to lay low if he really wanted to. This faction also points to a third suicide bombing group, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which grew out of a wing of Arafat’s own Fatah party.

Arafat, for his part, insists he backs the Aqaba summit’s goals and points out that Abbas serves at his discretion. He also condemned the June 11 suicide bombing.

For Israelis, the prospect of a “temporary” truce is somewhat insulting. Any such deal with Hamas, Pinkas notes, would likely exempt attacks on Israeli soldiers and perhaps even settlers, rendering it almost impossible for Israel to accept.

However, Israel, along with the Bush administration, also recognize that Abbas’ Palestinian Authority is in no shape after 32 months of pounding from Israeli missiles, tanks and warplanes to crack down on Palestinian militant groups. Unlike 1996, when Arafat jailed Hamas and other militant leaders, today “there are no Palestinian jails anymore,” says Janine Zakaria, the Washington correspondent for the Jerusalem Post. “Israel bombed them all, and the PA simply doesn’t have the power to move against Hamas or others in that sense.”

Pinkas says a truce “would give the PA time ... for their security apparatus to rebuild, and in due time, will enable them to to better confront Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”

Bush appointed a U.S. diplomat, John Wolf, who is now meeting with Palestinian and Israeli officials and will soon begin training a reconstituted Palestinian security force in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The group, similar to one that tried to act as an honest broker between the various factions during the 1990s, will be staffed by CIA agents.

Ultimately, Wolf’s monitoring team may be called on to help determine whether Israel’s frequent charges of collusion between Arafat and the groups who dispatch suicide bombers have any validity.

“Can it be done?” asks Murphy. “I wouldn’t say it’s impossible, but my hopes are limited.”

Michael Moran is MSNBC.com’s senior correspondent.

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