Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's term in office is expected to expire in January 2009, and it's still unclear whether he is planning to run again. What is clear is that a quiet battle to succeed him has already begun, as some of those around him see themselves as natural candidates. The power struggle in the PA coincides with the first anniversary of Hamas's violent takeover of the Gaza Strip, amid increased criticism in the ruling Fatah faction of the way Abbas has been handling the crisis with the Islamic movement. It also coincides with the beginning of a Fatah meeting in the Jordanian capital of Amman to set a date for holding "primary" elections in the faction for the first time in nearly two decades. At the meeting, the Fatah representatives are expected to decide when and where to hold their faction's sixth conference in order to pave the way for electing new members and leaders. Previous attempts to reach an agreement on a fixed date and venue failed, due to a fierce power struggle that has been raging in Fatah between representatives of the "old guard" and the "young guard." Abbas and his "old guard" - Fatah's veteran leaders - have been accused by the "young guard" of repeatedly foiling the long-awaited conference, in order to maintain their absolute control over the faction. But even some top PA and Fatah officials are apparently growing impatient with what they perceive as Abbas's "weak" and "failed" leadership. These officials hold Abbas responsible for the defeat of Fatah loyalists at the hands of Hamas in Gaza in June 2007, and for the continued failure of Fatah to embark on major reforms. "Abbas is not someone who can lead the Palestinians at this stage," said a top Fatah operative in Ramallah. "The time has come to search for a strong and charismatic figure." ACCORDING TO sources in Ramallah, among the potential candidates to succeed Abbas are Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, jailed Fatah operative Marwan Barghouti, former prime minister Ahmed Qurei, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat and former Fatah security commander Muhammed Dahlan. The sources said that each one of the potential candidates is working in his own way to improve his chances of becoming the third president of the PA. Qurei, for example, is trying to project himself as a "tough" negotiator who would never compromise the full rights of the Palestinians. This line became clear this week when Qurei invited a number of Palestinian journalists to his home in the village of Abu Dis and told them that "whenever the Israelis take a piece of land, it's as though they are taking a piece of my flesh." Qurei also recounted how he shouted at and rebuked Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni during the negotiation sessions in Jerusalem over the past few months. Fayad, for his part, has doubled his efforts to highlight his "achievements" in enforcing law and order, and combating financial corruption. In recent weeks, he, too, has been trying to portray himself as a strong and charismatic leader by making fiery statements about the peace process with Israel, and calling for an end to anarchy in the West Bank. And he has earned the respect of many Palestinians for campaigning against the upgrading of relations between Israel and the European Union. Both Qurei and Fayad insist that they have no ambitions to succeed Abbas, but their high-profile actions and rhetoric have aroused suspicion among the PA president's inner circle as to their real intentions. As for Barghouti, he has managed in the past few years to present himself to many Palestinians as the only person who could rehabilitate Fatah and lead it to victory in future elections. Barghouti sees himself as the leader of the "young guard" camp in Fatah that will one day revolt against the veteran and corrupt leadership that came with Yasser Arafat from Tunisia after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Public opinion polls indicate that he's not doing too badly on this score. PALESTINIAN OFFICIALS avoid talking openly about the clandestine power struggle in Ramallah. Still, some of them admitted this week that the talk about a battle for succession has increased tensions among the top brass in the Mukata presidential compound. "There's a feeling that Abbas is close to disappearing from the public scene," remarked another top Fatah official. "He's exhausted; he's angry; and he's obviously fed up with the Israelis and the Americans. He knows that he's not going to get anything before the end of this year, or any other time in the future. He's also aware that many of those around him have their sights set on his job." Abbas's surprise decision last week to hold unconditional talks with Hamas is seen by Palestinian officials as an expression of his growing disappointment at the lack of progress in the peace talks with Israel. In addition, Abbas is hoping that a "sulha" [reconciliation] with Hamas would enhance his status among the Palestinians and turn him into the hero who managed to reunite the Palestinians, thanks to his "wise" policies. On the other hand, Abbas's decision, which has angered many Fatah officials in Ramallah, may be linked to the Egyptian efforts to achieve a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. His main concern is that a cease-fire would consolidate Hamas's grip on Gaza, and help the movement extend its influence to the West Bank. Although Abbas and his top aides have publicly supported the cease-fire initiative, many of them would have preferred to see the IDF invade Gaza and overthrow the Hamas regime. But no one in Ramallah is prepared to say this openly, for fear of being branded a "collaborator."