AGAINST THE BACKDROP of the obstacles in the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA), pundits point to the enormous coalition and party problems facing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.The difficulties that beset PA President Mahmoud Abbas are not as well-known. In addition to being head of the PA, Abbas is also chairman of the governing Fatah party, which controls the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) – the official representative to the negotiations is not a representative of the PA but rather of the PLO.The first millstone is the rift with Hamas. Despite attempts by the heads of the PA in Ramallah to portray Hamas as some extremist faction that took over Gaza by force, the truth is that Hamas has won the hearts of many, and not just in Gaza but in the West Bank, too. The Palestinian public does not view Hamas as some terror organization akin to Hizballah or Al-Qaeda, but rather as a legitimate political group representing the opposition to Fatah.This can be inferred, for example, in the multitude of visitors expressing solidarity with the three Hamas parliamentarians who are striking in the Red Cross offices in East Jerusalem. The three were elected from the East Jerusalem district to the Palestinian parliament in 2006 and were arrested by the Israeli government and held in administrative detention following the kidnapping of IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. After their release a few months ago, the IDF revoked their right to live in East Jerusalem.The three parliamentarians turned to the Red Cross for protection and have been given shelter in its offices in East Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood. The Israel Police is forbidden to enter the quarters of the international organization and the three MPs hold forth in the courtyard. Thousands of well-wishers call on them, offering support, joining them in prayer, making public declarations and signing petitions.The locale has become a pilgrimage site not just for Hamas supporters, but also for the general public. On a recent visit, I saw representatives of all of the Palestinian factions, together with senior PA officials and a large crowd of supporters.The PA media – television, radio, and the three dailies, Al-Quds, Al-Ayyam, Al-Hayat al-Jadidah – give little coverage to the support for Hamas, and barely mention the visits to the Red Cross building. The PA media also rarely publish statements made by Hamas spokesmen, such as those that reject the legitimacy of Abbas as PA president because, officially, his term ended in January 2010.Despite the bitter rivalry between the PA and Hamas, the Egyptians continue to strive for reconciliation between the two. Another round of meetings opened on September 24 in Damascus between a Fatah delegation headed by Azzam Al-Ahmad (member of the Fatah Central Committee and chairman of the Fatah faction in the Palestinian Parliament) and a Hamas contingent headed by movement leaders Khaled Mashaal and Mousa Abu Marzuk. The sides are deliberating changes to a compromise document proffered by Egyptian General Intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, which Hamas earlier rejected. It’s hard to see the two sides reconciling, but without Hamas’s agreement there isn’t a chance of implementing any agreement between Abbas and Israel. And the rivalry with Hamas is just one element in the long saga of Abbas’s difficulties. Judging by the demonstrations over the past few weeks in Ramallah, Nablus and elsewhere in the West Bank opposing Palestinian participation in the peace talks (which were barely covered by the Palestinian press), Abbas went into the negotiations with Israel almost on his own.The entire Palestinian left-wing is against him, not only well-known groups such as the Popular Front and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, but also the People’s Party (the former Communist party) and other smaller left-wing movements that had always been considered to be Fatah’s loyal partners.Only nine of the 18 members of the Fatah Central Committee showed up for the most recent meeting, in mid-September, at which the negotiations with Israel were discussed. (True, some of them happened to be abroad). While the results of the meeting have not been made public, it would appear that even this forum did not give Abbas a clear mandate to go to Washington. In the end, the PA chief set out with only a small coterie of close aides, Sa’eb Erekat, Yasser Abed Rabbo and Nabil Sha’ath.In response, Mohammed Dahlan, the one of the more powerful figures on the Fatah Central Committee, published an article in Asharq Alawsat, an Arabic newspaper published in London, that criticized Palestinian participation in the negotiations and, of course, Israel. Asignificant number of Fatah supporters participated in the demonstration in Ramallah against the policy of negotiations with Israel; conspicuous in the crowd were Mamdouh al-Aqr, a leading participant in the 1991 Madrid talks, and billionaire Munib al-Masri, a former candidate for prime minister, who is considered to be the wealthiest Palestinian and whose investments are considered key to the Palestinian economy.In other words, there’s also opposition to Abbas’s participation in the peace talks within his own party, Fatah.From my last two visits to Ramallah, my impression is that Fatah, the leading party of the Palestinian government, is disintegrating. And of even greater concern, there is no candidate in sight who might replace Chairman Abbas.MAHMOUD ABBAS (ABU MAZEN), born in Safed when it was part of British-ruled Palestine, is 75 years old and has been hospitalized twice in the last few years due to his failing health. Abbas hails from a family that became refugees in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. He began his professional career as a teacher and government employee in the emirate of Qatar and is considered one of the few remaining founding fathers of the Fatah.Only one leader’s ties to Fatah predate Abbas: Farouk Kaddoumi, in charge of the PLO’s overseas diplomacy. But Kaddoumi has long been banned from all Palestinian political activity because of his opposition to the Oslo process of the 1990s. “I won’t return to my homeland if I have to get an Israeli permit to do so,” Kaddoumi has declared, and he continues to reside in Tunis, from where he travels to the Arab world, especially to Syria. Of late, he, too, has been unwell and was hospitalized in Tunis. Despite his seniority, Kaddoumi is not regarded as a possible successor to Abbas.Another longtime, high-ranking official is Muhammad Ghuneim, who joined Fatah in 1968 immediately after the Six Day War. Ghuneim is 73, and in the last elections for Fatah’s Central Committee, held in August 2009 in Bethlehem, he received the most votes. He, too, is considered an opponent of the peace process and refused to return to the West Bank after the Oslo agreement. He lives in Amman, Jordan, but unlike Kaddoumi, he cooperates with the PA leadership and doesn’t boycott committee meetings in Ramallah.Apart from those two, no high-ranking personage from the old rank and file could rally much support. In the past, Ahmed Qurei, who served as head of the Palestinian Parliament, was considered a potential successor – even to Arafat. But Qurei’s status dropped dramatically after he failed to get elected to Fatah’s Central Committee in the elections in Bethlehem.Other possible successors to Abbas come from the next generation – now in their 50s – and first among them is Marwan Barghouti. Dubbed “the engineer of the intifada” for his part in organizing the uprising of 2000, he was sentenced to five consecutive life sentences after an Israeli court found him guilty of terrorism. From his Israeli jail cell, Barghouti engages in considerable political activity; he holds regular meetings with the Hamas leaders jailed with him, receives guests, and publishes political declarations. In the last Fatah Central Committee elections, Marwan Barghouti made it to third place.In all probability, much of Barghouti’s popularity stems from the fact that he is in prison. In any case, his detractors see him as a populist leader, good on the streets but lacking the gravitas needed for the role of chairman.Another candidate whose name comes up is Nasser al-Kidwa, a politician with experience in international affairs who served for many years as Palestine Liberation Organization representative at the UN. Al-Kidwa’s family connections are no less significant: He is a nephew of Arafat. In the Arab world, and not only in the Arab world, this level of status carries enormous weight. The Palestinian press has even come up with a term, joumloukhiya, a combination of the words jumhariya (republic) and molokhiya (kingdom), as a way to mock the fact that in the Arab republics, sons follow their fathers to the government.“What’s the problem?” asked a political commentator on Al-Jazeera not long ago. “In America, didn’t George Bush, the son, inherit the presidency from his father?” The chairman of Fatah must be elected from within the Central Committee. In that respect, the Central Committee plays a role similar to that of the politburos in Communist regimes and the committee controls the PLO. The committee is made up of strong leaders, like Jibril Rajoub and Muhammad Dahlan, who headed Palestinian security apparatuses. But they do not lack for adversaries, either.In Palestinian society, in any event, the word is that the Fatah leaders are a corrupt group. Many of Fatah’s old guard have left Ramallah over the last few years to take up residence in Amman or Cairo, where they own homes and businesses.Abbas has stressed repeatedly that he has no wish to remain PAPresident. If he indeed relinquishes the post, for whatever reason, Fatah is unlikely to remain a united party or to continue to control the affairs of the PA. Over the past few weeks, I have asked Palestinian acquaintances who they think will replace Abbas. “It’s not a problem,” they reply cynically. “You Israelis or the Americans will find a replacement to your liking.”And so we see that the Palestinians no longer regard the Fatah and the PLO leadership as selfless fighters of the nation – but rather, as lackeys serving Israeli and American interests.But above all, the answer speaks to the loss of prestige of both Fatah and the PLO.And who profits most from all this? Clearly, arch rival Hamas.