MESS Report / Abbas Fears Hamas Could Still Play Spoiler to Peace Talks

Senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar has said the group wants to liberate the West Bank just as it liberated the Gaza Strip.

A few seconds after the speeches by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who said little new ), came smiles, a warm handshake and an intimate conversation between the two leaders. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sat between them, nodding. Netanyahu and Abbas have never before been seen so close to each other.

That may be the main reason for optimism ahead of the expected wrestling match between the two leaders' teams in the negotiations that lie ahead.

Until Thursday, Netanyahu and Abbas conveyed a sense of mutual contempt. If even the slightest amount of trust has been created between them, this would be the greatest American achievement so far.

Mahmoud Zahar - AP

But in just three weeks, the two face a challenge: the end of the construction freeze in the territories. There was consensus in Ramallah yesterday among both Abbas' Fatah party and his inner circle that if the moratorium does not continue, Abbas will not be able to continue the direct talks.

That would mean a prolonged impasse, at least until the next elections in Israel. And for the 75-year-old PA president, it would also deal a blow to his own standing and that of his party in the territories, leading many Palestinians to conclude that Hamas was right and force is the only language Israel understands.

Aware of the huge effort the Islamist group is investing in torpedoing the talks, Abbas told Netanyahu that the PA security forces were doing everything possible to catch the perpetrators of Tuesday's shooting attack near Hebron.

Both Israeli and Palestinian sources said the security forces have a lead to the identity of the perpetrators and Thursday's dragnet may have captured one of them.

Another positive development is that, unlike in the past, Israel did not blame the PA for the attacks. On the contrary, Israel holds the PA security forces in high esteem.

An Israeli officer who has been following developments said, only half jokingly, that over the past two days, the PA security forces have arrested every Palestinian who said the word Hamas more than twice a day.

But the PA fears that unknown sleeper cells might perpetrate attacks in the hope of provoking a harsh Israeli response, or settler violence, that would force Abbas to halt the talks.

Over the past few weeks, PA forces have stopped many couriers bringing cash from abroad to Hamas. They are teachers, doctors and merchants. Such people are a real threat to the PA: Coming in below its intelligence radar, these individuals could commit the next terror attack.

The money trail reveals that Hamas had been making increasing use of Palestinian businessmen working overseas. They buy merchandise abroad with Hamas money, sell it and give the money to Hamas operatives in the West Bank.

Hamas, for its part, is not even trying to hide its intentions. On Thursday, senior Hamas official Mahmoud Zahar said the group wants to liberate the West Bank just as it liberated the Gaza Strip. That means more attacks in the near future.