This week, upon hearing that the speaker of the Hamas-dominated parliament, Abdel Aziz Dweik, had been sentenced to three years in prison by an Israeli military court, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's inner circle heaved a sigh of relief. Dweik, who was arrested following the abduction of IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit, was supposed to step into Abbas's shoes on January 9, 2009, when the latter's term in office was scheduled to expire. The Palestinian Basic Law stipulates that the speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council would replace the PA president when his term expired, or if he stepped down for any other reason. When Yasser Arafat died in November 2004, the then speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC), Rouhi Fattouh, was appointed interim president of the PA for 60 days before new elections were held. Earlier this week, Hamas announced that it had plans to appoint Dweik as interim PA president when Abbas's four-year term in office expires next month. This is in spite of the fact that Abbas has made it clear he has no intention of stepping down in the near future, contending he is entitled to stay in power for at least another year. Hamas, on the other hand, says that Abbas will lose his legitimacy as PA president as soon as his term expires. PA officials had been worried that the early release of Dweik from prison would lead to a further escalation in tensions between Hamas and Fatah. "Hamas was hoping to embarrass us by naming Dweik as PA president after his release," said a PA official closely associated with Abbas. "Dweik can now be the president of the Palestinian prisoners." Another PA official revealed that top Palestinian officials had asked Israel to keep Dweik in prison at least for another few months, to foil Hamas's plans to name him PA president. "I believe the Israelis got the message," he said. "It would have been a bad idea to release Dweik at the peak of the controversy over the expiration of the president's term in office." Although Abbas does not intend to relinquish control over the PA next month, he announced this week that he would not run in the next presidential election, which he is hoping to hold in April or May 2009. But Abbas is well aware that under the current circumstances, in which the West Bank and Gaza Strip constitute two separate political and geographical entities - and because Hamas has repeatedly announced it would not allow early elections to take place in Gaza, insisting that the parliamentary elections take place in January 2010 as scheduled - even if he succeeds in holding presidential and parliamentary elections in the coming months, the vote will take place only in the West Bank. Abbas does not have the means to force Hamas to hold elections in an area over which he has no control. As such, the new PA president, whether it's Abbas or someone else, will be regarded as the representative of the West Bank only. IN THE eyes of Hamas and other Palestinian factions, on January 9 Abbas will become neither the president of the West Bank nor of the Gaza Strip. According to a prominent Palestinian academic in Nablus, Abbas will lose not only his legitimacy on that day, but also his credibility and right to speak on behalf of the Palestinians. "Abbas will be no different from dictators [Egyptian President] Hosni Mubarak and [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad," he said. "The Israelis and Americans who are supporting Abbas are wrong to think that they can reach any agreement with an unelected leader who can't deliver." The academic said that as of January 9, the Palestinians will have only one address. "The Hamas government is the only legitimate government, not only because it won the elections [in January 2006], but because it was approved by a majority of the members of the PLC," he said. The fiasco over the expiration of Abbas's term in office can only be avoided if Fatah and Hamas manage to patch up their differences and reach some kind of an agreement in the coming weeks. But, as things appear at this stage, the two parties are far from reaching any agreement over anything. In fact, the gap between the two sides appears to be widening, particularly since Egypt failed to end the differences between them in early November. The animosity between the two sides has reached the stage at which each party considers the other to be the real enemy. Hamas representatives are now openly inciting against Abbas and his top aides by accusing them of "collaboration" with Israel and the US. In some Hamas circles in Gaza, there is even talk of the need to assassinate some senior Fatah leaders in the West Bank, to send a warning message to Abbas, whose forces have been waging a relentless campaign against Hamas supporters there. Fatah, meanwhile, has begun referring to Hamas as a "terrorist" organization that serves the interests of Iran and Syria instead of those of its own people. Some Fatah members in the West Bank are also talking about links between Hamas and Al-Qaeda - apparently in an attempt to deter the Americans and Europeans from ever dealing with the Islamist movement. In closed meetings with senior IDF and Israeli government officials, some Fatah leaders have also been urging Israel to launch a massive military operation in Gaza to overthrow the Hamas regime. These Fatah leaders have also expressed their readiness to recruit hundreds of Fatah gunmen in Gaza to help bring down Hamas. Such an IDF operation might help, temporarily, to divert attention from the row over the expiration of Abbas's term, but in the long term, it would cause grave damage to Fatah's credibility. It would likely lead a majority of Palestinians to rally around Hamas, which would accuse Abbas and Fatah of "conspiring" with Israel to depose a democratically elected government. Nevertheless, there are many officials in Ramallah who are still hoping Israel will do the job for them.