The odds that the rift between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party and the Islamist group Hamas that controls the Gaza strip could be healed any time soon lengthened on Wednesday, with Hamas warning that anyone who heeds Abbas' call to participate in a January election will be held "accountable."
The Hamas run Interior Ministry in the Gaza strip said in a statement that Abbas did not have the legal authority to call fresh elections and made it clear that the group -- which won Palestinian elections in January 2006 and then took full control of the Gaza coastal enclave after a brief civil war in 2007 -- view the president's unilateral call as a provocation, not a step on the road to reconciliation.
That war, which saw most senior members of Fatah expelled from Gaza, led to the de facto creation of two Palestinian governments: That of Mr. Abbas, which is based in the West Bank and is viewed more favorably by Israel and the US, since it has formally recognized Israel's right to exist, and that of Hamas in Gaza, which has not.
Though neither the US nor Israel deal directly with Hamas, the Obama Administration has been eager for some kind of reunification since making steps toward peace are gravely complicated by the fact that a sizable chunk of the territory that is hoped to one day form an independent Palestine is in Hamas' hands.
Egypt, one of two Arab states that has a peace agreement with Israel and full diplomatic relations, has been trying to bring the secular-leaning Fatah and Hamas together for nearly two years. In talks in Cairo earlier this month, Egypt proposed an arrangement in which Hamas would give up its full military control of the Gaza strip to joint patrols with Fatah gunmen, which would also regulate the lucrative smuggling tunnels out of the isolated enclave.
Hamas leaders, who have consistently described the 2007 war with Fatah as a counter-coup against their rival's efforts to prevent them from governing after they'd won a free and fair election, said the terms were unacceptable. President Abbas' response was to call for elections in January, which his aides hope will put pressure on the Islamist movement to reconcile. So far, it appears that both sides are digging in. A senior Hamas legislator called over the weekend for Abbas to be tried for "usurping" authority.
Abbas and his advisors have been hoping that a new election would have a far different outcome than the 2006 vote, which was a stunning victory for Hamas. In the years since, as Gaza's economy has collapsed amid an Israeli-blockade on commerce and taken further hits from Israel's assault on the enclave last December and January, polling shows that Hamas popular support has declined.
But recent events have also left many Palestinian's questioning Abbas' own leadership. After a UN commission led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone found that both Hamas and Israel had likely committed war crimes during that conflict, Abbas worked with the US to prevent a UN vote on accepting Goldstone's findings, something Abbas drew fire for from all segments of Palestinian society. He eventually changed course after the political damage was done.
And the Palestinian president's greater willingness to work with Israel towards peace has also been hurting him of late -- since the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has continued to expand settlements in the West Bank. Both President Obama and Abbas had pushed Israel on a settlement freeze earlier this year as an important good will gesture. The Obama administration has since backed down from this demand, leaving Abbas feeling isolated.
Israel's Channel 10 reported this week that Abbas -- often referred to by his nickname Abu Mazen -- recently told Obama in a telephone conversation that he sees no chance for peace as long as Prime Minister Netanyahu is in power and that he intends to resign the presidency. He also complained about Washington's "capitulation" to Israel on the settlement issue.
"It isn't likely that the threat will be taken especially seriously -- he's made such threats before without following through," he writes. "He's most likely trying to recoup some domestic standing and to put some pressure on Netanyahu."
"But what if he were serious, as some well-connected Palestinians have suggested to me yesterday and today?... First, it would shake up the comfortable status quo of what passes for the peace process... the talks about talks, the political discussions which go on in near total isolation from facts on the ground, and the untenable assumptions which allow everyone to pretend that things are moving forward. If Abu Mazen really did quit, it would suggest that there are real political costs to the current approach and might force a rethink both in Washington and in Tel Aviv. Palestinian domestic politics tend to be sorely neglected in the analysis and execution of Middle East policy, with predictably bad results (i.e. the Goldstone fiasco)."