Choosing Between Abbas and Hamas

But it is hard to say who is more to blame for these failures: Abu Mazen, who proved unable to fill Arafat's shoes or mend his ways, or Ariel Sharon, for his decision to get rid of the PA and to resort to unilateral steps.

It is a shame that Hamas had to win the Palestine Legislative Council elections in order for the world to suddenly pin its hopes on Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen). This is the same Palestinian leader who earned the sobriquet of "plucked chicken" from Ariel Sharon. Since he became prime minister, while Yasser Arafat was in power, Israel has done all it can to clip his wings; once it did, it complained that he was too inept to fly. The United States went even further: It barely raised a finger to shore up Abu Mazen, but then insisted that he hold elections on schedule and allow Hamas to take off.

Now, with Hamas flying high and Fatah on the skids, Israel and the United States are expecting Abu Mazen to stick his finger in the dam and stem the flood all on his own. They have begun to understand that by not wanting Fatah, they ended up with Hamas, and that if they punish the entire Palestinian population for their mistake, they will only get humanitarian tragedy and social and political chaos. The bitter experience of Iraq has taught them that there are situations in the Middle East that can make one look back with yearning even for shady characters like Saddam Hussein.

Charges of the PA's inability to combat terror and grievances about corruption have been shunted aside. When Hamas' Khaled Meshal is cursing Jews, Abu Mazen sounds like a veritable songbird.

Fortunately, when Israel and America forced Arafat to appoint a prime minister and to hand over a considerable share of the chairman's authorities, Arafat insisted on retaining much of the power. For example, it is the PA chairman, not the prime minister, who has direct jurisdiction over the regional governors. This arrangement will enable the foreign powers to use Abu Mazen as a pipeline for the transfer of tax receipts from Israel and foreign aid from donor states, and thereby prevent a descent into chaos in the territories. Had Abu Mazen opted to resign, Israel and the international community would have been compelled to choose between transferring funds to the Hamas government - in other words, recognizing a government that does not recognize Israel's right to exist - and the starvation of hundreds of thousands of people.

Nevertheless, it would be hard to believe that Abu Mazen will in the long run be prepared to play the role of pipeline, or of the plumber who keeps the drain open. In an interview with ITV, the British television network, he hinted that if he were to conclude that he cannot alter the reality in the territories, he would resign his post, as he did in 2003 when he gave the keys to the prime minister's office back to Arafat, after the latter refused to give up control over the security forces. He also told ITV that the Hamas victory does not negate the president's right to conduct negotiations with Israel on a permanent settlement and to bring it to a referendum. Indeed, it is the PLO, not the PA, which is the formal party to the agreements with Israel. Polls indicate that a referendum on the end of the occupation would cut Hamas, which opposes a two-state solution, down to its natural dimensions: of 15-20 percent support.

If the time is not ripe for permanent settlement talks, there is no reason for Ehud Olmert not to invite Abu Mazen to a meeting and let him go home with a stack of achievements - such as prisoner releases, withdrawal from the cities, reduction of the blockades and removal of checkpoints.

Now, too, when Abu Mazen is being portrayed as the last resort, some observers contend that he is a broken reed, and that Hamas may in fact be able to supply the goods. Judging by past results, Abu Mazen has failed to meet expectations when it came to imposing his authority on the security forces and ensuring proper administration of the public services. But it is hard to say who is more to blame for these failures: Abu Mazen, who proved unable to fill Arafat's shoes or mend his ways, or Ariel Sharon, for his decision to get rid of the PA and to resort to unilateral steps.

In any case, the Olmert government will soon have to decide if it prefers Hamas as a partner in perpetuating the conflict, or Abu Mazen as its final partner for peaceful resolution of it.