'Even if Binyamin Netanyahu were to offer us a Palestinian state tomorrow morning, I'm not sure that we are prepared to meet such a huge challenge." These were the words of a Palestinian Authority official who briefed reporters hours after US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell held talks with PA President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah last week. The official said that the continued power struggle between Fatah and Hamas did not only hamper efforts to establish an independent state, but also posed a major threat to the entire "Palestinian national project." Relentless efforts by the Egyptians to end the Hamas-Fatah rift have failed to produce positive results, leaving the Palestinians with two separate entities in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Despite the failure, the Egyptians have invited representatives of the two parties to Cairo for another (and perhaps) final bid to persuade them to put aside their differences and work together in the framework of a "unity government." A Hamas delegation from the Gaza Strip, headed by Mahmoud Zahar, arrived in the Egyptian capital earlier this week to attend the "reconciliation talks" with Fatah. Fatah and Hamas spokesmen continue to voice pessimism regarding the prospects of ending the split between the West Bank and Gaza. They say that the only reason they keep going back to Cairo is to placate the Egyptians. Both parties find it difficult to say no to the Egyptians, who have long been acting as mediators between the Palestinians and Israel. Echoing the pessimistic tone, a Fatah official in Ramallah said that the Palestinians will have to live from now on with the fact that they have two "mini-states." The conflict between Hamas and Fatah, he added, is not going to be solved in the near future. "The gap between the two sides remains very wide," he explained. "This is a dispute over ideology and strategy, and not technical matters." ONE OF the main sticking points remains the status of the peace process. Fatah is insisting the political program of the proposed unity government recognize all previous agreements that were signed with Israel - a demand that is fiercely opposed by Hamas, because it would mean that the Islamic movement would have to recognize Israel's right to exist. Hamas says that while it is prepared to "respect" the fact that the agreements exist, it will never "abide" by them. The two sides have also failed to reach an agreement on other sensitive issues, such as the timing and nature of the next parliamentary and presidential election, reforming the PLO and reconstructing the security forces. At the last round of talks in Cairo, the only thing the two parties agreed on was the release of "political prisoners," and putting an end to the war of words that has long been raging between them. However, Hamas-controlled media continued this week to launch scathing attacks on Abbas and his aides, accusing them of being puppets in the hands of the Israelis and the Americans. Almost every day, someone is interviewed about his "experiences" in PA prisons in the West Bank. Most tell horrifying stories of brutal torture at the hands of US-trained Palestinian interrogators. Abbas's media, on the other hand, continues to depict Hamas as an "illegal militia" that seized control of the Gaza Strip through violent means. And Web sites controlled by Fatah continue to publish reports about massive abuse of human rights in the Gaza Strip, as well as "corruption scandals" involving members of the Islamic movement. THE PAST week has seen an escalation in the confrontation between Hamas and Fatah, both in words and deeds. The latest deterioration in relations came after Syrian-based Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal attributed the failure of the reconciliation talks to American and Israeli pressure on Abbas. Mashaal's allegations were aimed at sending the messages to the Palestinians and the rest of the Arab world that Abbas and his Fatah faction have placed the interests of "outside parties" above those of their own people. The tensions reached their peak when a security officer opened fire at Hamas legislator Ahmed Bitawi as he emerged from a mosque in Nablus. Bitawi, who was lightly wounded in the leg, is considered by many Palestinians as a leading religious figure and the spiritual leader of the Islamic movement in the West Bank. Hamas rushed to accuse the PA of masterminding the "assassination attempt" as part of its ongoing crackdown on Hamas supporters in the West Bank. Abbas's security forces claimed that the attack was the result of a "private dispute" between Bitawi and his assailant. Later in the week, the Fatah-dominated security forces in Nablus arrested Prof. Abdel Sattar Qassem, a former presidential candidate and one of the most prominent critics of the PA leadership. According to a security commander in Nablus, Qassem, who is believed to have close links to Hamas, was arrested following a string of lawsuits by Palestinians who accused him of "slander." Figures released by Hamas show that Abbas's security forces are currently holding more than 550 people, most of them alleged Hamas supporters, in detention without trial. In the past week alone, about 30 suspects were rounded up in various parts of the West Bank, further enraging Hamas, which has retaliated by arresting scores of Fatah men in the Gaza Strip. THE HAMAS-FATAH rivalry appears to have diverted attention from another power struggle that has been raging within Fatah for many years, namely the confrontation between the old guard and the young guard. Abbas's critics accuse him of using the rift with Hamas as an excuse to avoid implementing major reforms that would, among other things, see the emergence of a new and younger leadership. Abbas and his veteran colleagues have repeatedly foiled efforts to convene a long-awaited conference as a first step toward holding internal elections, the critics maintain. The last time the conference was held was 20 years ago. One of the obstacles to convening the conference is Fatah's failure to find a country that is willing to host the gathering. Egypt and Jordan have already turned down requests from senior Fatah representatives to allow them to meet in Cairo or Amman. The Egyptians and Jordanians are said to be worried that the Fatah operatives would exploit the podium to criticize Arab regimes for their failure to support the Palestinians financially. ABBAS AND his lieutenants are now hoping to divert attention from their failure by placing all the blame on the new right-wing government in Israel. Their chief argument - which they relayed to Mitchell - is only if Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman announce their support for the two-state solution, everything would be fine. This argument completely ignores the fact that the Palestinians are farther away than ever from obtaining their own state, not only because of Netanyahu and Lieberman, but because of the fact that neither Fatah nor Hamas is genuinely working toward achieving that goal.