Amid reports of significant progress in mediation efforts to achieve a prisoner exchange agreement between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian Authority convened a conference in Jericho earlier this week to highlight the case of Palestinians held in Israeli jails. Obviously, the PA leadership in the West Bank was hoping that the conference would divert attention from reports about an impending deal between Israel and Hamas. To achieve its goal, the PA dispatched Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to address the conference. Another keynote speaker was Marwan Barghouti, the top Fatah operative who is serving five consecutive life terms for his role in a series of murderous attacks on Israeli citizens. Barghouti, of course, did not appear in person before the conference, but sent a long letter from his prison cell. Indeed, the conference, which received wide coverage in Palestinian and Arab media outlets, did succeed in drawing the attention of many. But as soon as participants left the conference hall, the media's attention was once again focused on Cairo and Damascus, the scenes of diplomatic efforts and clandestine negotiations aimed at reaching a deal on the release of IDF soldier Gilad Schalit. Each time reports surface about an imminent deal between Israel and Hamas, PA officials do their utmost to try to steal the show from the Islamic movement. This has been the case since Schalit's abduction in the summer of 2006. The PA has good reason to be worried. A deal between Israel and Hamas is likely to boost the standing of the movement among Palestinians, many of whom will give it credit for succeeding in doing what Mahmoud Abbas and the PA leadership have failed to do in past years - namely to secure the release of hundreds of prisoners from Israeli jails, including ones who have Jewish blood on their hands. It would also be very embarrassing for Abbas and his Fatah faction if Hamas managed to secure the release of some of their supporters from prison, including such prominent figures as Barghouti or the commanders of Fatah's armed wing, the Aksa Martyrs Brigades. It's therefore no coincidence that the families of Hamas inmates held in Israeli jails were not invited to the Jericho conference. Neither were Hamas legislators and political officials living in the West Bank. "Mahmoud Abbas and his authority are trying to hijack the issue of the prisoners by holding a lousy conference in the West Bank," complained Salah Bardaweel, a Hamas legislator from the Gaza Strip. "They are also seeking to overshadow Hamas's great efforts to achieve an honorable deal that would lead to the release of our Palestinian prisoners." Another Hamas legislator, Yunis al-Astal, said that the PA's decision to ban Hamas representatives from attending the conference was designed to avoid exposing the PA leadership's failure to release Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails: "Since the signing of the Oslo Accords, the PA has not done enough to turn the issue of the prisoners into a major case." ABBAS IS worried that a prisoner swap would not only bolster Hamas's stance, but also earn the movement some form of recognition in the international arena and perhaps in Israel. In the past three years, Abbas and Fatah have worked very hard to delegitimize Hamas in the eyes of the international community by depicting the movement as a murderous and fundamentalist armed group that staged a coup against a legitimate authority in the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2007. Now Abbas has to sit in his offices and watch his enemies in Hamas hold meetings with German and Egyptian officials in Cairo and Damascus. If it were up to Abbas, Hamas figures like Ismail Haniyeh and Mahmoud Zahar would be behind bars and not moving from one five-star hotel to another. Recent reports about secret meetings between Hamas representatives and EU government officials have also enraged Abbas and his entourage. Abbas's ambassadors to a number of EU countries are said to have warned their host governments against holding any form of contacts with Hamas. Some officials in Abbas's office are convinced that Hamas has also been holding secret talks with Israeli political and security officials. "According to reliable information that we have, Hamas is talking to Israel," said one official. "Hamas is lying when it denies these reports." In an interview with the BBC's Arabic program last week, Abbas repeated the claim that Israel and Hamas had been engaged in secret talks. Abbas claimed that the talks were focused on the establishment of a Palestinian state with temporary borders, an idea that has been rejected by the PA leadership. Hamas, needless to say, has vehemently denied the claim as a "big lie." Abbas's "revelations" are viewed in the context of his efforts to undermine Hamas's credibility in the eyes of Arabs and Muslims. Hamas's announcement earlier this week that it has agreed, together with several Palestinian factions operating in the Gaza Strip, to stop firing rockets at Israel is also being cited by Abbas and his aides as evidence that the movement was involved in some kind of murky business with the Israelis. THE PA leadership's suspicions and frustration grew stronger when MK Shaul Mofaz, Kadima's No. 2, announced earlier this month that he would be willing to talk to Hamas about the creation of a Palestinian state with temporary borders on 60 percent of the West Bank. Although Mofaz's offer has been strongly dismissed by Hamas, there are many in the PA leadership who insist that "there can't be smoke without fire" and that something must be cooking behind closed doors. No matter how the negotiations over the proposed prisoner exchange end, it's clear that Hamas has managed to ascertain its role as a major player in the Palestinian arena and the entire region. The fact that a former IDF chief of staff and defense minister who was behind the killing of scores of Hamas leaders is openly calling for negotiations with the movement is seen by many Palestinians as proof that it is moving in the right direction. If all goes well and a prisoner exchange accord is reached soon, Abbas will have to sit in his office or at home and watch as Hamas and its supporters celebrate the release of a large number of "quality" prisoners from Israeli jails. Every single achievement made by Hamas will be regarded as yet another nail in the coffin of Abbas, who has now admitted that he can't even implement his plan to hold new elections in January 2010 because of the movement's refusal to allow the vote in the Gaza Strip. The war between Fatah and Hamas is apparently still in its early stages.