In a few days' time, there'll only be one elected Palestinian leadership: Hamas.
A Palestinian man had his car stolen in Ramallah a few days ago.
Dutifully, he turned to the local Palestinian Authority police - whose improved law enforcement capacity has been much exalted in certain quarters of late. Police officers proceeded to attempt to negotiate a "ransom" arrangement with the thieves, under which the vehicle would be returned in exchange for an acceptable payment.
Dismayed, the victim abandoned that corrupt path, and decided to go all the way to the top. He contacted the office of PA head Mahmoud Abbas. But the response was not dissimilar. Officials there also offered to negotiate with the thieves on a fee for the car's return, with a little supplementary payment for their own involvement.
Difficult to verify, this story was told to me by a trusted colleague who is thoroughly familiar with the current workings of the PA at street level, and is thoroughly skeptical about its capabilities. His point: If Abbas is incapable of achieving the legitimate return of a stolen car to its rightful owner in his home city of Ramallah, why on earth would anyone consider him capable of marketing to his own people and then implementing a peace agreement with Israel?
WHATEVER THE accuracy of the stolen car tale, the point about Abbas's credibility is well-made and too rarely highlighted.
A month and a half ahead of general elections, Israel is embroiled in a debate about the rights and wrongs of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's last-minute peacemaking efforts - with both the Syrians and Abbas's PA.
How dare he seek to commit Israel to agreements, compromises, concessions et al, the opponents protest, when he has been hounded from office in the wake of a failed war and a trail of corruption allegations? But he remains the democratically elected leader of Israel, the supporters retort, and as such is obligated to work to advance what he perceives as Israel's interests during every waking hour in the Prime Minister's Office.
Largely ignored by the local antagonists, and by most international analysts, meanwhile, is the fact that if Olmert is a lame duck, his Palestinian interlocutor, Abbas, is a veritable political amputee. As of January 9, he will cease to be the democratically empowered president of the Palestinian Authority. His term in office will have expired.
Hamas has long been indicating that it will not regard him as a credible authority after that date. Arab media sources are already starting to cast doubt on his post-January 9 legitimacy. Arab governments and the wider public will certainly do the same. "Palestinians are asking by what virtue will Abbas claim to be leading the Palestinians," reports a West Bank-based journalist. "They scoff that 'he'll be Bush's president or Rice's president, but certainly not our president.'"
Indeed, this reporter pointed out to me, after January 9, there'll be only one elected Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza: Hamas.
WHILE ARIEL SHARON and subsequently Ehud Olmert, firmly supported by the Bush administration, have consistently depicted Abbas as a well-intentioned moderate and as embodying the best hope of an Israeli-Palestinian accommodation, Abbas's standing among his own people has gradually ebbed away since he succeeded Yasser Arafat four years ago.
Two months after Arafat's death in November 2004, Abbas was overwhelmingly elected to presidential office (with 62.5 percent of the vote) on a promise to clean up Fatah and the governance of the Palestinians, to root out corruption and institute reform.
He failed so signally that Hamas, after winning a series of local council elections over Fatah as the perceived exemplar of honest authority, cemented its elected hold on the Palestinian polity by gaining a majority of seats in elections for the quasi-parliament, the Palestinian Legislative Council, a year later, on January 25, 2006.
Despite the violence it employed against its own people in seizing undisputed power in Gaza in June of 2007, and the dire reality of daily life in the Strip today, many Palestinian analysts believe that Abbas would lose to Hamas's Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh if he were to succumb to the legal timetable and submit himself to a presidential vote.
Not only that. Abbas has gradually hemorrhaged support within Fatah for failing to clear out the Old Guard, for failing to thoroughly support his reformist Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, for failing to display credible and consistent leadership even as regards Hamas.
Sometimes he lambastes his Hamas rivals as infidels and enemies of the prophet Muhammad, and vows to crush them and never be reconciled to them. At other times, he talks of the need for sulha in the greater Palestinian interest, stresses the imperative for brothers to solve their problems together and implores the likes of Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak to help him achieve this goal.
Sometimes, notably to Western audiences, he talks up his determination to fight terrorism and depicts Hamas as undermining the Palestinian cause through the use of bombs and rockets against Israel. At other times, he seems to deride Hamas for the purported puny nature of its (drastically escalating) Kassam fire, only this week branding it "inefficient."
Centrally, he is seen to have sought American and other international help to get rid of the Islamists, profoundly damaging his standing among his own people. The necessary response to Hamas's rise, of course, was to recognize the terror group's ballot-box popularity as proof of the urgent need to reform Fatah.
AS REGARDS Israel, Abbas's language may be significantly less incendiary than Arafat's, and the gulf between what he says to Arab audiences and what he says to Western and Israeli audiences somewhat less gaping, but a gulf there most certainly is.
Most importantly, Abbas has not adopted domestic public diplomacy to emphasize to his own people the historic legitimacy of Jewish claims in the Holy Land - and thus to prepare Palestinians for the kind of viable compromise that Olmert and Bush relentlessly insist he is capable of both making and selling. He succeeded a leader who had sneered at the very notion that a Jewish Temple was ever constructed in Jerusalem, and has chosen not to counter that delegitimizing thrust, while the media organs that he controls maintain highly negative coverage of Israel and Jews.
"The day you have a Palestinian leader who stands up and says in Arabic to his own people that the Jews have rights here, that the Jews have rights in Jerusalem, that there are historic and religious sites of deep significance here for Jews - on that day you can start to feel optimistic,' says my West Bank-based journalist source. "Whatever may or may not be said in the face-to-face meetings at the Israeli Prime Minister's office, that day has not dawned under Abbas."
IS THERE, waiting in the wings, a truly moderate and capable Palestinian leader - someone ready to reform Fatah, willing and able to counter and marginalize Hamas, and courageous enough to tell the Palestinian public that the Jews have rights here, too?
Prime Minister Fayad may well possess some of these qualities, but he does not have not all of them. Unfortunately for his ambitions, he boasts no record of years spent in Israeli jails. He can claim no glorious history of stone-throwing and worse. He has played no part in the revolution.
As such, in a Palestinian political culture unreformed by Abbas since the Arafat era, he has no credibility.
So, today, Mahmoud Abbas shuttles rather pointlessly from Ramallah to Washington, Cairo and beyond in the dying days of his legitimate presidency, having lost Gaza utterly and barely retaining a hold on the West Bank. And the prospect of a longed-for Israeli-Palestinian accommodation is about as realistic as the likelihood of getting your car back without paying a ransom if it's stolen on the streets of Ramallah.