Hamas-Fatah showdown could come at the ballot box

jerusalem | In calling for elections, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has sharpened the choice facing the Palestinian people: Back his Fatah party and have peace with Israel and the promise of economic prosperity, or support the rejectionism of Hamas, whose nine months in office have brought war, chaos and impoverishment.

Abbas’ call Saturday, Dec. 16 for early elections in the Palestinian Authority triggered fierce street fighting between Fatah and Hamas — the worst in years, with children caught in the crossfire. Despite a hastily arranged cease-fire Monday, Dec. 18, the two factions remain on the brink of civil war.

The United States, Israel and other Western countries are hoping for a Fatah election victory that could pave the way for a resumption of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The United States is actively helping Fatah, but Israel — fearing that support for Fatah will backfire and undermine the moderates — is staying out.

The turmoil in the Palestinian camp comes as Syria launched a new initiative for peace with Israel. Peace with Syria would be a major strategic gain for Israel, breaking up the Iran-Syria-Hezbollah-Hamas axis, and would put additional pressure on the Palestinians to cut a deal with Israel.

But Israel is not biting. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert does not trust Syria’s intentions and does not want to cross President Bush, who opposes dealings with Damascus.

The internal Palestinian struggle and the Syrian overtures are part of a greater regional struggle for hegemony, pitting Iran and radicals such as Syria and Hamas against Western-leaning moderates such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and Abbas’ Fatah. How the Palestinian struggle plays out and whether Syria comes over to the moderate side will have major implications for Iran’s position in the region.

In his Dec. 16 speech, Abbas launched a scathing attack on Hamas’ policy of violence and non-recognition of Israel.

“The settler land [that Israel evacuated] should have flourished with economic, tourist and agricultural projects, but some people insist on firing rockets,” he scoffed. “They kidnapped the Israeli soldier, and since then they paid with 500 martyrs, 4,000 wounded and thousands of homes destroyed.”

Analysts say Abbas hopes to use the threat of elections to pressure Hamas into forming a national unity government with Fatah. That might enable the Palestinian Authority to accept the international community’s benchmarks for dialogue — recognition of Israel, acceptance of past agreements and renunciation of violence — paving the way for peace talks and the lifting of the international economic boycott of the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority.

Some Hamas leaders favor this, others still hope to circumvent the boycott by bringing in Iranian money.

Palestinian Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas was intercepted recently trying to smuggle $30 million from Iran into Gaza. Indeed, Hamas strategy is built on financial and political ties with Tehran. Hamas leaders believe that if they can hold out until Iran gains regional dominance, they’ll be able to defeat Israel.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair visited Ramallah on Monday, Dec. 18, to back Abbas’ conception of peacemaking as something that brings significant economic benefits. He hoped to convince the Palestinian people that Abbas’ approach has a good chance of success.

Abbas has the backing of moderate Arab states such as Saudi Arabia, which is providing funds, and Egypt, which reportedly is supplying weapons.

Syria, however, continues to host Hamas leaders in Damascus, which is one of the reasons Israel is wary of its new peace offer.