By Zvi Bar'el, Haaretz Correspondent
The Hamas political - not military - silence is no more than nervous waiting for medical news from Paris. Hamas representatives publicly wish the Chairman good health and a speedy recovery, but nobody denies Hamas had long awaited just this situation.
Even before Yasser Arafat's illness became known, Hamas leaders declared on several occasions that they see their organization as a worthy substitute for the Palestinian Authority.
Now, if Arafat, whether alive or dead, is gone from the leadership, Hamas will share the status of anyone with pretensions to rule, whether he be named Abu Mazen, Fatah, or the PLO itself.
In view of this, calls from Hamas leaders for a united Palestinian leadership 'to face new challenges' are getting increasingly loud. When Hamas talks about a unified leadership, it means its own representation will not shrink and may even exceed that of Fatah and its branches.
This call by Hamas fits nicely with Egypt's initiative to establish a unified leadership that would make it easier for Egypt to impose its patronage on the disengagement plan while cooperating with the Palestinians, thereby preventing conflict with any of the parties.
The closeness that developed over the past year between Hamas and Egypt - the 'partner status' the organization received during talks with Egypt - greatly upset the PA and annoyed Yasser Arafat. He was caught in a vise between Egypt, which sought to bring about a cease-fire, and pressure exerted by the PLO, which demanded that Hamas be neutralized.
In that web of pressures, Hamas presented itself to Egypt as an organization prepared at any time to hear and reach national reconciliation, and that the rejectionist party was Arafat and his organization.
According to Hamas sources, each time Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman arrived on the scene, Hamas gave him conciliatory messages. This was out of an assumption, later proved correct, that Arafat wouldn't want to grant Hamas the sought-for status as a partner equal to Fatah.
Now, if Arafat is gone and Abu Mazen heads the PLO, Hamas will be in a more comfortable situation. Abu Mazen forged close ties with Hamas leaders back in the days of Abdel Aziz Rantisi and Ahmed Yassin, who viewed him as 'a decent and honest man.'
The important challenge facing Arafat's replacement or replacements - how to get Hamas to assist with the disengagement plan without giving it veto power over political maneuvers.