The Bush Administration has been investing in the image of the Palestinian Authority ahead of the January 25 PA parliamentary elections, in which PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party runs the risk of being edged out of power by Hamas in the first Palestinian election in over a decade, The Washington Post
The American initiative hopes to ensure that the PA receives recognition for a number of popular projects.
The US government, however, is keeping a comparatively low profile in the $2 million initiative headed by the Agency for International Development. No official government logos appear during projects and events.
Sources within Israel's defense establishment said Sunday morning that they believe that Hamas will win the upcoming elections and form the next coalition.
Acting Prime Minister Ehud Olmert will call a special security discussion on Sunday to discuss the upcoming elections and the implications of their results for Israel.
The main questions that will be addressed during the discussion were how Israel would respond to a Hamas-dominated government and if negotiation or other diplomatic contacts would be interpreted by the global community as de-facto recognition of the organization's legitimacy.
The head of the Defense Ministry's military/political policy bureau, Amos Gilad, said in an interview with Army Radio Sunday morning that he believes that Hamas will refuse to disarm and will continue their fight against Israel
even after the elections.
"Hamas will not give up on terror," Gilad said. "It will not give up on the strategic endpoint that Israel has no right to exist. They even have said publicly that they will not agree to any process in which the terror network is broken-up."
Gilad's appraisal of Hamas was backed-up by comments made Sunday by Ismail Haniya, the top candidate on the Hamas list for Palestinian parliamentary elections. Haniya said that Hamas supports only as a temporary solution the establishment of a Palestinian states along the 1967 borders and with Jerusalem as its capital.
Haniya emphasized that Hamas does not recognize the existence of the State of Israel and maintains its vision of establishing a Palestinian state throughout all of the area west of the Jordan River.
He also reiterated that there is no chance that Hamas would voluntarily disarm as long as Israel exists.
With the threat of Hamas gaining a small majority, scores of Fatah-affiliated candidates who are running as independents in the January 25 elections are under heavy pressure to drop out of the race to enhance the ruling party's prospects of winning the vote.
Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas personally phoned many candidates over the past few days to urge them to quit and to back Fatah's official list. At least five candidates who were running on independent tickets have agreed to withdraw their candidacy.
"The issue of independent candidates poses a real problem for Fatah," said PA Information Minister Nabil Shaath. "The votes of the Fatah supporters will be wasted unless they drop out of the race. These candidates are making a big mistake that is being added to previous mistakes."
Shaath urged the independent candidates to withdraw their candidacy and to stand behind Fatah. He said those who refuse to comply would be dismissed from the party after the election.
Ahmed Ghnaim, a top Fatah official from Jerusalem, said the issue of independent candidates should be resolved within 24 hours. "There's a real battle between Fatah and Hamas and we urge all Fatah candidates running independently to pull out of the race and to back our official list," he said.
A public opinion poll published over the weekend put Fatah and its rival Hamas movement in a statistical dead heat. The poll, which was conducted by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center, found that 36.7 percent of the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip support Fatah and 36.4% support Hamas, while in the West Bank Fatah showed a slightly larger margin with 29.7% as compared to 26.6% for Hamas.
When combining the results of the survey in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Fatah enjoys the support of 32.3% compared to 30.2% for Hamas. The poll also showed that 81.4% of the eligible voters intend to participate in the voting process. The survey was conducted between January 13-15, and involved a random sample of 1001 residents over the age of 18.
Another poll, conducted by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, gave Fatah 42% of the votes as opposed to 35% for Hamas. The poll covered 4,516 voters (of which 2,974 came from the West Bank and 1,542 from the Gaza Strip).
Thousands of members of the PA security forces began voting on Saturday for the parliamentary election. The voting will last until Monday, after which the security forces will be deployed to prevent violence on the day of elections.
Among those who voted on Saturday were several Fatah militiamen who had been recruited to the security forces. One of them, Zakariya Zubeidi, commander of Fatah's armed wing in Jenin, said he voted for Fatah.
The PA Central Election Commission said that 58,705 Palestinian security personnel and police are expected to participate in the voting. It said that the security personnel and police in 17 constituencies would vote in 27 polling stations in the Gaza Strip and 33 in the West Bank.
Tawfik Abu Khoussah, spokesman for the PA Interior Ministry, denied allegations that the security forces had been ordered to vote for Fatah.
Abbas suggested on Friday that he would like a government of national unity to emerge from the upcoming legislative elections. He said the group that wins the most votes on Wednesday would form the new cabinet.
"I call on all the Palestinian political parties to join forming the new Palestinian cabinet that will be formed after the election," he told the independent Palestinian news network Ma'an News.
AP contributed to this report.