Abbas' Only Chance

For a moment this past weekend, it seemed Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was getting stronger, while Hamas and its leadership were in a slump.

For a moment this past weekend, it seemed Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas was getting stronger, while Hamas and its leadership were in a slump. The prisoners' release was presented to the public as a success for Abbas, who was very keen to point out - to avoid finding himself in hot water - that Israel alone prepared the list of the released, without him or his aides knowing anything about it. Ismail Haniyeh, Hamas' leader in the Gaza Strip, had to welcome the release, but he immediately added that one must be wary of the traps being laid by Israel, which is paying the PA what amounts to political bribes to divide the Palestinian people by releasing Fatah prisoners only. An Arabic- language daily in London said openly what was heard on the street corners of East Jerusalem: The release of 250 prisoners out of a total of nearly 11,000 is humiliating; an insult to Abbas.

To a certain degree it was surprising to hear that Hamas' leader in Damascus, Khaled Meshal, before his meeting with Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad last week, had apologized for the mistakes made during Hamas' takeover of the Gaza Strip. Of course, he stressed that he did not apologize to anyone - only before Allah - but this could also be interpreted as a sign of weakness. Add to this some of the more vociferous attacks against Hamas by Fatah leaders still in the Gaza Strip, like Zacharia al-Ara, who said Hamas behaved worse than the Israeli occupier, and it is fair to say that Abbas and his Fatah supporters sense a weakening Hamas.

They rallied, and their campaign against what they call the "bloody Hamas overthrow in the Gaza Strip" is becoming more focused and determined. The insults and accusations that Abbas used against "the person known as" Khaled Meshal and "the person known as" Ismail Haniyeh during his speech at the PLO Central Committee meeting in Ramallah have destroyed any possibility for dialogue and compromise. The use of the expression "the person known as" is reserved in Palestinian parlance to describe the most despicable criminals and collaborators.

Late last week I sat with the delegates of the PLO Central Committee in Ramallah to get a taste of the atmosphere and hear what was being said. Abbas' presentation was neither theatrical nor electrifying like those of Yasser Arafat. That was to be expected. The applause he received was also weak. Many of the approximately 100 members who came to the deliberations of the central committee - an intermediate body between the 700 members of the PLO National Council and the Executive Committee, which is similar to a PLO government - wore suits and ties. Thirty delegates who came from Amman were particularly prominent in their formal attire. It appears that for them this was a festive occasion.

I saw people who in the recent and distant past held key positions in Palestinian political life. From the distant past there was Mohammed Milhem, former mayor of Halhul, expelled in 1980 and a former member of the Executive Committee. There was also Abed al-Jawad Salah, another former mayor who had been expelled. From the recent past, Intisar al-Wazir (Umm Jihad), who moved to Ramallah from the Gaza Strip along with dozens of Fatah leaders who decided they could not live there. An acquaintance, a journalist, drew my attention to the fact that nearly all those present except the guests from abroad reside in Ramallah. He could not remember the last time Abbas visited Nablus, Hebron or Jenin, and decided that the PA chairman has not made such a visit since his election in 2005.

It was hard to shake the feeling that this was a show of heroes from the Palestinian past. The present and future belong to those who were not there, regardless of whether this means Hamas or opposition within Fatah. Such an opposition does exist, not only abroad but also in the territories, and among its spokesmen are Hani al-Hassan and Jibril Rajoub, and possibly Marwan Barghouti. They are asking to hold a dialogue with Hamas, not just fight against it. Abbas' success is greatly dependent on the political steps of the Israeli government, which is, more than anyone, responsible for his weakness. Nonetheless, Abbas must make order in Fatah, hold a general conference and internal elections. Otherwise, he stands no chance of success.