(photo credit: AP)
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas's surprise visit to Yemen this week left many Palestinians wondering why their president chose to go, of all places, to that country. Moreover, the timing of the visit - as Hamas continues its efforts to establish a new cabinet - raised many eyebrows in Ramallah and Gaza.
Top Palestinian officials explained that Yemen was chosen because of its close ties with Syria and Iran, the only two countries that are openly supporting Hamas.
Abbas went to Yemen, they said, to seek its help in persuading Damascus and Teheran not to provide Hamas with financial aid for fear that such a move would prompt the US and the Europeans to stop supporting the Palestinian Authority.
According to unconfirmed reports, Abbas met during his last tour, which also took him to the Gulf, with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and discussed with him the future of the Palestinian Authority in the aftermath of Hamas's landslide victory in the January 25 parliamentary elections.
That's why Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip temporarily suspended their coalition talks with representatives of various Palestinian factions, including Fatah, while Abbas was away.
"The real talks were taking place abroad," said a source close to Hamas.
"Some Arab governments are mediating between Fatah and Hamas to convince them to form a joint cabinet."
Abbas's Fatah party remains as divided as ever on the issue of joining a Hamas-led cabinet. The opponents consist largely of representatives of the young generation such as warlords Mohammed Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub - Hamas's sworn enemies.
As security commanders under Yasser Arafat, both Dahlan and Rajoub were responsible for periodic crackdowns on Hamas members and leaders in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Hamas publications often refer to the two as Israeli and American "collaborators" and hold them responsible for mismanagement and financial corruption.
The two, together with scores of young guard Fatah operatives, are now spearheading a campaign aimed at ending the hegemony of old guard officials over the party and its institutions. At the end of this week, Fatah's two key decision-making bodies, the central committee and the revolutionary council, are scheduled to hold separate meetings to discuss the repercussions of the party's humiliating defeat in the parliamentary vote.
Dahlan and Rajoub are expected to exploit the platform to demand a larger say in decision-making and the removal of old timers and corrupt officials who they hold responsible for the fact that a majority of Palestinians chose not to cast their ballots for Fatah. Some Palestinians see the campaign as the beginning of a bloodless coup against Abbas and the veteran leadership of Fatah.
Hamas, for its part, is keen on bringing Fatah into the new coalition. In a series of meetings between Prime Minister-designate Ismail Haniyeh and a number of senior Fatah leaders in the Gaza Strip, the Hamas leader made it clear that his movement was prepared to give Fatah some ministerial posts in the new cabinet.
Hamas, which is reluctant to govern alone, has recruited Egypt to put pressure on Fatah to accept its offer. Last week the Egyptians reportedly summoned Dahlan and another Fatah activist, Samir Mashharawi, for talks in Cairo about the possibility of including Fatah in a Hamas-led cabinet. The Egyptians, according to some reports, exerted pressure on the two to reconsider their position and to sit with Hamas in the same cabinet.
The Egyptians and Hamas are extremely worried that the international community will boycott the Palestinians financially once Hamas forms its new cabinet. Hamas's failure to pay salaries to over 140,000 civil servants at the end of each month is likely to plunge the Palestinian areas into more anarchy and lawlessness. Such sanctions could also pave the way for extremist groups like Islamic Jihad and al-Qaida to try to fill the void.
This week Abbas confirmed reports that al-Qaida was already operating in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The only group that has agreed so far to join a Hamas-led cabinet is the radical Marxist Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The group's secretary-general, Ahmed Sa'dat, has been sitting in a Palestinian prison for the past four years because of his role in the assassination of Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze'evi. Sa'dat and four of his friends, who are also behind bars, are hoping that the new Hamas administration will release them after taking control of the Palestinian Authority.
But the Hamas leaders are apparently not excited about the prospects of having a radical, Syrian-backed group like the PFLP as their only coalition partners. Such a partnership does not serve Hamas's efforts to project itself as a pragmatic and responsible group capable of providing good governance and establishing relations with the West.
Haniyeh and other Hamas leaders have made it clear their first priority would be to extend an open hand to the West. Or, as Haniyeh said in a recent interview with The Jerusalem Post, "We will endorse a policy of openness toward the West."
Hamas still has another four weeks to complete the formation of the new cabinet. At this stage, it remains unclear whether Fatah will join the coalition. It's also unclear how the new cabinet will function in the wake of Israel's threats to ban Hamas leaders from shuttling between the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The new cabinet, like the Hamas-dominated parliament, could end up holding its weekly sessions via video conference, with half the ministers sitting in Ramallah and the other half sitting in Gaza.
In any case, what is evident is that the Palestinians will soon find themselves under the control of two authorities - one led by Hamas and the second by Fatah.
Although Hamas won the election, all the indications are that Fatah has no intention of relinquishing control over the Palestinian Authority's finances and security forces.
Abbas has already indicated that he plans to keep some of the security forces under his direct control. He has also taken a series of measures to ensure his office's continued control over the Palestinian media and key economic institutions.
Ironically, Hamas wants Abbas to remain in power so that the international community could continue channeling funds through him to the Palestinians. Hamas knows that the money would eventually go the Palestinian budget and from there to ministries and other institutions under its control.
"The money won't go to Abbas's pocket," Hamas representative Salah Bardawil told the Post this week. "The Palestinian Authority is not a private enterprise run by Abbas."