There is one particular policy that the US and Israel have always followed in their efforts to bring the Palestinian resistance to zionism and the zionist state under control, and that is the cultivating of leaders among the Palestinians whom they feel they can most easily control and manipulate. When the PLO was first established, the Israelis insisted on dealing only with Arab governments. When the first intifada radically changed the dynamics of the Palestinian struggle, the Israelis suddenly discovered that they could deal with Yasser Arafat after all; hence the Oslo talks and the peace process. After the outbreak of the al-Aqsa Intifada, for which the Israelis decided to focus all blame on Arafat in order to avoid raising the credibility of the Islamic movements that were its real moving forces. At the same time, they also started cultivating others within Fatah and the secular Palestinian movement to replace Arafat as their favoured Palestinian leaders; hence their approval of Mahmoud Abbas as a man they could do business with. Today, Abbas is particularly important to the Israelis as the only man who stands between Hamas and the political leadership of the Palestinian struggle.
The result was that Abbas found himself meeting with US president George W. Bush at the White House last month, an "honour" only rarely accorded to Palestinian leaders (or other Arab leaders, for that matter), even though Israeli leaders have traditionally treated it as a second home. There was nothing particularly new to report from the meeting; standing on the White House lawn on October 20, Abbas gave his usual optimistic spiel, saying "The time has come to put an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict; the time has come that the Palestinian people will attain freedom and independence." Bush was equally upbeat: "This is a time for great possibilities in the Middle East... the people of the region are counting on their leaders to seize the opportunities for peace and progress."
Behind the positive words, however, nothing has changed. Abbas asked Bush to open a new line of communication with the Israelis, at which all Palestinian concerns could be discussed, but this was refused. There are currently talks between politicians and officials on both sides but these are entirely on Israel’s terms. Bush mildly criticised Israel's expansion of settlements, but made no commitment to doing anything about it, which he could easily do if he were seriously concerned. Even as Abbas was in Washington, Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon was preparing for a trip there by promising his Likud party's annual conference that his government is committed to expanding settlements as quickly as possible, but that it needs to be done discreetly.
Israel’s present strategy is also a well-established one: to urgently pursue the changes it wants to make in the geopolitical realities on the ground so that it enters any future talks from a position of strength. The withdrawal from Ghazzah, although forced on it by the Palestinians’ resistance, has been turned to its advantage by being presented as a major and unilateral concession. In return, Sharon is claiming land in Palestine, and preparing the world to recognise Israel's unilateral annexation of Jerusalem and its status as Israel's eternal capital.
For the Palestinians, none of all this is news. They have seen it all before, and know the basic reality that their lives remain controlled by the Israelis, however independent Abbas may claim the Palestinian Authority is. There is, however, a new factor in Palestinian politics, one that worries the Israelis and the West more than any other in recent history. That is the rise of Hamas as a political force, despite the Israelis’ determined efforts to destroy it by targeting its political and military leaders for assassination in the latter part of the intifada. Hamas's clear political stance towards the peace process during the 1990s, which was vindicated by events, and its leadership of the intifada, particularly in Ghazzah, where it dominated the resistance that drove the Israelis out, has given it immense credibility. So too have the fact that it has massive social welfare programmes, which are efficient and well-run compared to the corruption that characterises all parts of the Palestinian Authority and its institutions.
Having decided not to run a candidate against Abbas for the presidency of the Palestinian Authority after Arafat died, Hamas has been expanding its influence in Palestinian politics at the grassroots level and the level of debate about the future direction of the Palestinian struggle. At the Palestinian National Dialogue talks in Cairo earlier this year, it prevented the watering-down of the struggle's goals, despite demands by the Israelis and advocated by Abbas and the PLO. The talks were supposed to have produced a declaration of Israel's right to exist, which would have been hailed as a breakthrough by the Israelis, the US and the world’s media. Instead, few people even remember that they took place; but Hamas's role is not forgotten by either the Palestinians or the Israelis.
In recent months, the Israelis have tried to pressure Abbas into preventing Hamas from taking part in the parliamentary elections due in January, having been postposed from the summer to give Abbas time to counter Hamas's influence. They have recently conceded defeat, as Abbas has told them that he cannot act against Hamas and elections would not be credible without them. The fact that he was welcomed in Washington despite this failure is a sign of the West's desperation to bolster his position.
During the 1990s the Israelis tried hard to foster internecine conflict between Hamas and the PA. This was avoided by Hamas's political maturity under the guidance of Shaikh Ahmad Yassin shaheed. Today similar tactics are being tried; Hamas forces must make every effort to avoid this trap, even as the political stakes are rising. Palestine is entering a crucial stage of the struggle, and the Islamic movement there has the key responsibility to ensure that the unity of the Ummah there is maintained, whatever pressures are placed on them.