Anyone familiar with the Arabian Nights tales knows they depict a reality comprised of layer upon shadowy layer, one concealed behind another. Cloaked schemers abound, each exploiting another schemer, each duping someone for secret ends. Life is an interminable complex of nefarious conspiracies in which it's best not to trust anyone but suspect everyone. In the Arab Middle East, one and all assume you're conning them, and you can never prove otherwise. Truth isn't only immaterial, it's downright undesirable. This after all is the region that regarded Gamal Abdel Nasser as a victor following his 1956 and 1967 debacles. This is the region that spawned the Palestinian persecution scam and which convinced its masses that Israel was behind the 9/11 destruction of the Twin Towers. By such fanciful yardsticks, it's no stretch for unanimously reelected Fatah chief Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) to claim that he honors his undertakings to eradicate terror while making cozy affable deals with it and glorifying its perpetrators as role models to be emulated by the youths educated in his schools, indoctrinated by his media and preached to in his mosques. His proven penchant for duplicity makes Abbas eminently worthy of the mantle of his predecessor at the PA helm, Yasser Arafat. Abbas assiduously toes Arafat's footsteps. This can be gleaned from the testimony of Muhammad Dahlan, Arafat's longtime sidekick who, like his boss, carefully cultivated a reputation for ostensible moderation. Singing Arafat's praises on a recent interview broadcast from Ramallah on PATV, Dahlan took pains to extol Arafat for "having never turned his back on the armed struggle" against Israel, his lip service to the Oslo process notwithstanding. Arafat had condemned terror attacks "during daytime, but did the honorable thing at night," Dahlan stressed in his audience's own Arabic idiom. Proficient in their milieu's nuances, Dahlan's listeners understood that "the honorable thing" meant fostering terror and that "at night" meant surreptitiously. In other words, Dahlan profusely praised Arafat for saying one thing upfront while doing the precise opposite behind the backs of the international community and his peace partners. NO LESS adept at subterfuge, Abbas postures as Israel's hapless victim. His heart is artlessly in the right place. He seeks to do the right thing - which he would sincerely do were it not for those obstructionist Israelis. The watching world voluntarily falls for Abbas's fabrications and encouragingly promotes the PA figurehead's pose. Seemingly in the enlightened vanguard of the global good-guy brigade, Abbas convinces willingly gullible saps that he substantially differs from Hamas warlords. When there's nobody else to appoint as an interlocutor, it's facile to pretend that the supposed lesser evil is humanity's great hope for the greater good. After all, Abbas respectfully promises on every occasion to quell incitement within his latifundia, for example. That's why no big deal was made anywhere of Abbas's choices last year to receive the PLO's highest medal of heroism, the Al-Kuds Mark of Honor. Five women - all behind Israeli bars - were named as "a humanitarian gesture," geared to highlight their "sacrifice and suffering as Israel's captives, to raise their morale and pay tribute to them." The five include Ahlam Tamimi, who participated in the August 9, 2001 attack on Jerusalem's Sbarro pizzeria. She escorted the suicide bomber to the eatery where he killed 15 people, including seven children and five members of a single family. Another of Abbas's heroines is Amana Muna, insolently unrepentant and the most aggressive despot of the women's security wing in whichever penitentiary she's transferred to. She is the fetching Fatah operative who via Internet chats lured 16-year-old Ophir Rahum from Ashkelon to a cruel death outside Ramallah on January 17, 2001. Only weeks ago Abbas inaugurated the Martyr Dalal Mughrabi Girls' School in Hebron. Mughrabi was among 11 terrorists who on March 11, 1978 waylaid a cab and two buses on the coastal highway, murdered 35 (among them 12 children) and wounded 71. She presumably is the inspiration for the youngsters who'd be inculcated with her legacy at the institution that bears her name. IN THE same vein, remorseless Khaled Abu-Usba, one of Mughrabi's two surviving accomplices (he was released in 1985's Jibril deal) was accorded a hero's welcome at last week's Fatah convention in Bethlehem. Abbas's Fatah is lauded worldwide for apparent pragmatism. Abu-Usba's atrocity doubtlessly stirred pleasurable nostalgia among the mostly geriatric delegates to the first Fatah convention in 20 years. The majority were politically over-the-hill and tainted by corruption. Abbas wouldn't have summoned this elderly lot had he not been threatened by Hamas and Fatah's own militant younger generation. This has-been bunch is hardly likely to recognize Israel as a Jewish state with legitimate sovereign presence here. It's least likely to drop insistence on the "right of return" - the right to obliterate Israel via inundation by untold millions of hostile Arabs. Indeed, it's too feeble and frightened to negotiate, much less end warfare. The only ace up its sleeve is the deceased Arafat's charisma. No wonder all sides to Fatah's rife domestic disputes lay claim to his moral authority. Fatah cofounder Farouk Kaddumi - who significantly brands the two-state solution "just a temporary phase" - showed Al-Jazeera TV what he asserted were protocols of a three-way collusion by Abbas, Dahlan and Israel's then-PM Ariel Sharon to assassinate Arafat. To counter Kaddumi's accusation, Abbas recruited the "face of terror," Bassam Abu-Sharif, Arafat's consigliore. But did Abu-Sharif deny the calumny? Heck no! Tall tales of a plot to murder Arafat are too good to pass up in a setting where fact and fiction are inherently indistinguishable. Since no one would anyhow believe Arafat died a natural death, better just blame all foul play on Israel. According to Abu-Sharif's 1002nd Arabian Nights tale, he knows for a fact that Israeli agents clandestinely substituted poison for medications Arafat was taking. Moreover, the lethal Israeli concoction was deliberately brewed especially for this purpose by a leading Israeli pharmaceutical firm. Nobody asked how Abu-Sharif came to possess this information, whether he can back it up or why he chose to divulge it only now. Instead all delegates - without a single redeeming skeptic among them - raised their hands in favor of a resolution proclaiming that Israel is culpable for Arafat's demise. The convention unanimously demanded an international inquiry into Israel's role in terminating the Nobel Peace laureate. The canard became gospel. Invaluable energy was expended on it at the expense of tackling real problems. Scheherazade herself couldn't have come up with a more convoluted plot for the 1002nd tale. Its fantastic twists and turns certainly won't lead where Barack Obama, Gordon Brown, Nicolas Sarkozy, Angela Merkel and additional assorted foreign meddlers cynically assure us - road map in hand - that it will. Where the culture of mendacity reigns, trustworthy accords cannot grow.