abbas un 298.88.
(photo credit: AP)
The question many Palestinians were asking this week was not whether Hamas and Fatah would be able to overcome their differences and establish a "national unity government," but if it was true that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was hiding more than $1 billion in secret bank accounts.
The issue of the missing money was first raised by Hamas minister Atef Udwan, who claimed in an interview that Abbas was deliberately avoiding paying Palestinian civil servants their salaries as part of his efforts to undermine the Hamas-led government. Udwan also claimed that Abbas's office was "sitting on" at least $1.2 billion of international donors' money.
Abbas, according to his top aides, was so enraged by the allegations of financial misconduct that he immediately called off a planned meeting in Gaza City with Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh to discuss the formation of a unity government. "Hamas has crossed a red line by leveling such charges against the president," said one aide.
"Abbas has always been very keen to avoid being linked to any form of financial corruption, especially at this sensitive phase when tens of thousands of Palestinian families are facing tough times because of international sanctions."
When Abbas's office demanded an apology, the Hamas minister responded by repeating the charges, a move that further exacerbated tensions between the two parties.
On Tuesday night, Abbas flew to Egypt and Qatar to complain about Hamas's "campaign of incitement" and to seek these countries' support in his ongoing power struggle with Hamas.
By Thursday it was still unclear whether he was planning to resume talks with Haniyeh over the unity government upon his return.
Most of Abbas's advisers are skeptical about the prospects of forming a unity government with Hamas, and believe that the only way out of the current crisis is to dissolve the government and parliament and hold new elections.
At a meeting earlier this week of the PLO executive committee in
Ramallah, many members urged Abbas to "put an end" to the crisis by issuing a presidential decree dismissing the government and parliament and calling for new elections.
"You are wasting your time by negotiating with Hamas," one committee member shouted at Abbas. "Why don't you just get rid of them and declare elections, so that the people can decide what they want?"
But Abbas has thus far been reluctant to take such a drastic measure, for fear of being depicted as someone who is plotting with the US and Israel against a democratically elected government.
Abbas is also aware of the possibility that such a move could trigger a violent confrontation with Hamas, especially in the Gaza Strip, where the Islamic movement continues to enjoy tremendous support despite the severe financial crisis. Besides, what guarantees does Abbas have that Hamas would not score another landslide victory in new elections?
ABBAS'S FAILURE to reform Fatah in the aftermath of the party's defeat in the January parliamentary election, as well as his insistence on continuing to employ the services of some of the prominent icons of corruption in Fatah, are undoubtedly the main reasons why many Palestinians still don't trust him and his Fatah cronies.
Some Fatah officials last week came up with the idea of toppling the Hamas-led government through a no-confidence motion in parliament, noting that there was a big chance that such a move would succeed now that more than 26 Hamas legislators are in prison in Israel. But Abbas has categorically rejected the idea, explaining that this would make him look as if he were conspiring with Israel to get rid of the Hamas-led government. "People will say that Israel arrested the Hamas legislators to help me overthrow the government and I don't want this," he reportedly told a Fatah operative in Ramallah.
Some Palestinians are convinced that even if a unity government is eventually established, the power struggle between Hamas and Fatah will continue, bringing the chances of civil war closer than ever. Fatah leaders like Muhammed Dahlan are openly talking about civil war as the only way out of the current crisis.
Only two weeks ago Fatah and Hamas appeared to be close to striking a deal on a unity government. Both parties have a great interest in such a government, mainly because it would lead to the resumption of financial aid to the Palestinians on the part of the international community.
The main dispute, however, remains over the political program of the proposed government. Abbas wants Hamas to publicly endorse the resolutions of the United Nations regarding the Middle East conflict, as well as the peace plan declared by the Arab summit in Beirut in 2002. By doing so, Hamas would indirectly recognize Israel's right to exist - a move that many Hamas leaders are vehemently opposed to.
The farthest Hamas is prepared to go is to accept a controversial and ambiguous document that was drafted by leaders of some Palestinian prisoners in Israel earlier this year, which talks about a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem without recognizing Israel. "There's a limit to how far Hamas can go," said a Hamas legislator in Gaza City. "If Abbas thinks that Hamas will ever endorse Fatah's political agenda, he's mistaken."
As the squabbling between Fatah and Hamas continues, unpaid civil servants are planning to step up their protests in the coming days. Most of them don't care if Abbas has $1 billion, or whether or not Hamas recognizes Israel. Their motto: We want to feed our children, and we don't care about Hamas and Fatah.