It may yet take months, but there is every likelihood that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will ultimately reconcile his Fatah movement with Hamas, an interim government of "technocrats" will be formed, and new Palestinian elections will be held. Abbas was in Damascus on Sunday and Monday to discuss those prospects of reconciliation with President Bashar Assad, who is pushing for Palestinian unity. Arab leaders, though jostling for relative influence, want to see Palestinian factions form a united front. Abbas is still refusing to meet with Khaled Mashaal, the Damascus-based Hamas leader, until the Islamists reverse what Abbas calls the June 2007 "coup," which ousted Fatah from Gaza. For its part, Hamas wants reconciliation efforts to result in Abbas internalizing the results of the January 2006 Palestinian Legislative Council elections, in which it won 74 out of 132 seats. Fatah is still smarting from this defeat, which led to months of failed efforts at power-sharing. Abbas had sought to retain Fatah's influence, pursue talks with Israel and maintain ties with, and the flow of cash from, the West. Meanwhile, Ismail Haniyeh, the Hamas "pragmatist" who became PA prime minister, rejected Quartet requirements that the Islamists renounce violence, recognize Israel and adhere to previous PLO commitments. THE TWO sides are divided over Fatah's long, often corrupt and autocratic stewardship of the Palestinian cause and over its control of the Palestine Liberation Organization - the internationally recognized arm of the Palestinians. Hamas and Fatah also differ over how best to achieve and articulate Palestinian aims and the role of Islam in the anti-Israel struggle. Then, too, there are the visceral personal hatreds between key figures in both camps. Fatah never denied the Islamic aspect of anti-Zionism, though it has emphasized Palestinian nationalism since 1964, when it embarked on "the armed struggle." Yet whatever his ultimate motives, Fatah leader Yasser Arafat moderated the group's public position and signed the 1993 Oslo Agreement with Israel, which paved the way for the establishment, in 1994, of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas, founded by Sheikh Ahmed Yassin in 1987 during the first intifada, is an offshoot of the notorious Muslim Brotherhood. Islamists believe that every dunam of land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean is consecrated in trust for future Muslim generations; that compromise is a sin, and nationalism a heresy. Its 1988 Charter foretells that Muslims will one day obliterate Israel. WHILE ISRAEL'S presence in Judea and Samaria keeps Hamas's military wing in check, Hamas's leaders prepare for the day when they will take control of the PA. Despite intensive well-funded Western efforts channeled through Abbas supporters to strengthen Palestinian civil society, a vast network of Hamas-affiliated social welfare organizations, supported by donations from throughout the Muslim world, boosts the popularity of an already admired organization. The IDF is expanding its efforts to close Hamas's West Bank institutions and confiscate their property - really a job the PA should have done. It is hard to believe that anyone - not US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, not EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, and certainly not Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni - has any illusions about what would happen to Abbas and Fatah were the IDF to withdraw from the West Bank. As Abbas's prospects dim - a Ramallah judicial body unilaterally "extended" his term beyond January 2009 - Fatah needs the legitimacy unity would bring. And for Hamas, unity is the road to controlling the West Bank. COULD ABBAS enhance his popularity by reaching a "shelf agreement" with Israel by the December 2008 deadline? It's hard to see how, given that his "moderate" negotiating stance demands Israeli withdrawal to the 1949 Armistice Lines as well as the Palestinian "right of return" - signaling the demographic destruction of Israel and unacceptable even to the most pliant of Israeli governments. If Palestinian negotiators are quietly making far-reaching concessions on borders and refugees to pave the way toward a shelf agreement - without preparing their people for the idea of compromise - Abbas's popularity will plummet further. Conversely, if no deal is achieved, Abbas's leadership will be undermined and Hamas emerge ascendant. So while Fatah-Hamas reconciliation appears inevitable, the chances of it contributing to Jewish and Palestinian states living side by side in peace and security seem ever more remote. Does Livni have a Plan B?