In keeping with a long tradition of "helping Abu Mazen," Israel made it possible for Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah General Assembly to gather 2,000 delegates in Bethlehem beginning August 4. The assembly is an effort to demonstrate that Fatah remains the vanguard of the Palestinian polity. Delegates have come from around the Arab world, save for Hamas-controlled Gaza. The atmosphere for the conference was auspicious. The Obama administration has been ostentatiously leaning on Israel to halt all housing construction over the Green Line. Life under the "occupation" - now that the Palestinians are not systematically shooting at us - isn't at all bad. Over the weekend, for instance, the main north-south West Bank highway, Route 60, was jammed with Palestinian and Israeli traffic; intrusive security restrictions affecting average Palestinians were nowhere to be seen. The West Bank economy is doing relatively well. And Israel's leadership has committed itself to the establishment of a demilitarized Palestinian state. Under these circumstances one might have expected Abbas to finally begin the process of socializing Palestinians to the idea of coexistence with Israel and the need to compromise on borders and refugees. Instead, Fatah remained steadfastly uncompromising. Armed resistance, Abbas's assembly declared, remains legitimate though for tactical reasons will be held in abeyance - for now; violent "civil disobedience" is laudable; recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is out of the question; and Fatah will continue to insist that the descendants of some 700,000 Palestinian refugees from the 1948 war - today numbering in the millions - have a "right of return" to Israel proper to, in effect, demographically asphyxiate its Jewish population. Abbas summed matters up this way: "The Fatah movement was established so as to liberate all the Palestinian lands and we will not concede even a single inch. We will continue our struggle and with the path of resistance until we establish our state whose capital is a united Jerusalem that is purged of settlements and settlers." He then invoked Jerusalem's place in Islamic and Christian traditions, willfully disregarding what Zion has meant to Jewish civilization from time immemorial. SOME SAY the bellicose rhetoric is traceable to schisms within Fatah pitting old timers led by Abbas and Ahmed Qurei, who returned from Tunis with Yasser Arafat after the 1993 Oslo Accords, and the transitional generation of Mohammed Dahlan, Jibril Rajoub and the popular Marwan Barghouti (imprisoned in Israel on multiple counts of murder). They, in turn, are challenged by a politically toothless younger generation - some associated with the Aksa Martyrs' Brigades (Fatah's armed wing). Others suggest that Fatah did not want to appear "soft" toward Israel in relation to Hamas. But the Islamists have been losing their appeal among Fatah's disenchanted bourgeois base partly because of the way they have been coercing religious behavior on Gazans. Fatah is now slightly more popular than Hamas among all Palestinians. Still, many of them view the assembly with a cynical eye. That Abbas was re-elected "general commander" running unopposed did not help Fatah's credibility. FOR Israelis, what matters is that rather than demonstrating leadership, Abbas and Fatah made demagogic appeals to a Palestinian street that sees moderation as weakness. This self-defeating intransigence is a deep-seated facet of Palestinian political culture. Abbas had a bully pulpit to coax the population in a more moderate direction, yet he and other Fatah leaders took the easy road - scapegoating Israel. Still, the assembly generated enough prevarication and dissimulation to perpetuate the pose that Fatah is a genuinely "moderate" alternative to Hamas. Abbas apologists will claim that the Palestinian Liberation Organization - not Fatah - acts for the Palestinians. In fact, Fatah controls the PLO. They will point out that Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, a technocratic outsider, is actually running the Palestinian Authority in a constructive manner with Abbas's blessing. This claim has more justification, though Fayad, who was imposed on Abbas by the US, has limited influence. When the incendiary rhetoric from Bethlehem is over, chances are unfortunately remote that Washington - much less Europe - will ease off on the red-herring issue of settlements to take Abbas to task for not using the assembly to preach peace, compromise and coexistence. At times like this, it seems "helping Abu Mazen" has become an end in itself.