hamas fatah great 298 ap.
(photo credit: AP)
Mahmoud Abbas, his aides complained this week, is perhaps the only person in the Palestinian Authority who still thinks that Hamas can be transformed into a party that is willing to accept the Oslo Accords, renounce violence and implement all agreements that were signed between the PLO and Israel. "He really believes that Hamas will change, and that it will finally recognize Israel," said one of the senior officials in the PA chairman's office in Ramallah. "In a way, he's a bit naive to stick to his belief."
Abbas was in Jordan earlier this week when his advisers phoned him urgently to inform him that Hamas's Interior Minister, Said Siam, was threatening to use force to prevent Palestinian policemen from demonstrating in various parts of the Gaza Strip against unpaid salaries. The protests, seen by Hamas as part of a "mutiny" designed to bring down their government, began late last week. Hundreds of policemen, accompanied by heavily armed Fatah militiamen, went on a rampage in the streets, shooting into the air and attacking government institutions.
Abbas chose to ignore warnings from his advisers that Siam's decision could trigger bloody clashes and claim the lives of many people. He reportedly told his aides that he did not believe Siam would order the Hamas "executive force" to open fire on the protesters. As such, Abbas added, "I see no need to return immediately to Ramallah."
Abbas's main argument was that Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, with whom he has close ties, had promised him that he would do his utmost to avoid civil war. As it later turned out, Abbas was wrong in his assessment, as he was wrong about the September 11 agreement that he claimed he had reached with Haniyeh on the formation of a national unity government. Then, Abbas emerged from a meeting with Haniyeh to break the "good news" that Hamas had finally accepted the Arab peace plan of 2002, which implicitly recognizes Israel's right to exist alongside a future Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem.
Abbas even went as far as to claim that Hamas had agreed to abide by all previous agreements with Israel after the formation of the unity government. Buoyed by the coalition agreement, Abbas flew to New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly meeting and to brief world leaders, including US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, on the alleged change in Hamas's position.
Yet, even before Abbas's arrival in the US, Hamas leaders and spokesmen strongly denied that they had agreed to recognize Israel or agreements with it. Their statements seriously embarrassed Abbas, making him appear as if he did not know what he was talking about. World leaders who met with and heard from him about the ostensible change in Hamas's policies confronted him with excerpts that contained the denials of Hamas leaders.
"The president [Abbas] was so embarrassed by what Hamas did to him while he was in the US," recounted a senior PA official. "They actually did everything to undermine his credibility, and thus sabotaged his efforts to persuade the international community to resume financial aid to our people."
For weeks, Abbas has stubbornly resisted pressure from his senior aides and many Palestinian officials to use his powers and fire the Hamas-led government. Each time they told him that there was no chance that Hamas would ever accept his demands, Abbas retorted that he needed more time to try to convince the Islamic movement that the only way to resolve the crisis in the Palestinian Authority was to endorse a lenient approach that would appease the US and the rest of the international community. "He kept saying, 'Give me two more weeks and you will see that Hamas will comply,'" said a PLO executive member.
IN THE context of his efforts to put pressure on Hamas to change, Abbas last week flew to Qatar, one of the few Arab countries that maintain good relations with Hamas's overall leader, Khaled Mashaal, who is said to be the main obstacle on the road to the establishment of a Fatah-Hamas government. In the end, the Abbas-Mashaal meeting did not take place, because Mashaal rejected Abbas's demand that he apologize for accusing the PA chairman, earlier this year, of conspiring with the enemies of the Palestinians against the democratically elected government.
On Wednesday, Abbas once again issued his famous two-week ultimatum to Hamas. At a meeting with Rice, he told her that he was determined to dismiss the Hamas-led government and form a new government that would recognize Israel and honor all the agreements between the Palestinians and the Israelis. And later that day he made it clear that the talks with Hamas over the unity government had failed, and that he had no intention to meet with Haniyeh in the near future.
It's not clear, then, why he has also asked for another two weeks. No one in Abbas's inner circle believes that the next two weeks will see Hamas making dramatic changes in its ideology and policies. "The president is wasting his time at the expense of the people, who are suffering as a result of the severe financial crisis," said a respected newspaper editor in Ramallah. "Today it's clear to all that there is no other alternative but to fire the Hamas government and call early elections."
Abbas's aides, meanwhile, have stepped up their pressure on him to stop hesitating and to take real measures to resolve the crisis. They pointed out that Rice assured Abbas during their meeting this week that the US would stand behind him and his Fatah party if he chose to get rid of the Hamas-led government. The US, they added, does not share Abbas's view that Hamas can be transformed, which is why the Americans want him to dismiss Haniyeh's government. Washington also promised to reward Abbas and his Fatah party with millions of dollars and weapons should he embark on such a course.
However, Abbas's main concern is not wanting to be seen by his constituents as a pawn in the hands of Israel and the US. The bloody clashes that took place on "Black Sunday" in the West Bank and Gaza Strip - which claimed the lives of 12 people and left more than 150 wounded - are only a taste of the dangers that lie ahead. Today he is well aware that an extreme measure such as firing the government would undoubtedly result in civil war.