Although the Palestinian Authority appears to have softened its position regarding the resumption of peace talks with Israel, it is wrong to assume that it has also changed its stance on major issues such as Jerusalem, refugees, borders and settlements.
Thanks to the ongoing incitement and indoctrination in the Palestinian and Arab media, the Palestinians have been radicalized to a point where any talk about making concessions to Israel is automatically associated with "high treason." Sadly, we have reached a point where many Palestinians and other Arabs are convinced that the only language that Israel understands is force, and that this is the only way to extract concessions from the Jewish state.
Fatah today is weaker than it it was a few years ago, largely thanks to Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's refusal to allow the party free and unlimited access to the Palestinian Authority coffers. Fayyad, in a move that has enraged many senior Fatah leaders, has also kept Fatah members away from high positions in the Palestinian cabinet in the West Bank. Some Fatah officials have even accused Fayyad of being part of a US-Israeli-European conspiracy to eliminate Fatah for once and for all so that he could have exclusive control over the affairs of the Palestinians.
Even if Mahmoud Abbas were to sign a peace agreement with Israel tomorrow, his chances of implementing it, or even marketing it, are almost non-existent. He has lost control over the Gaza Strip, and cannot even visit his home or office there. In the West Bank, he has limited control and a serious credibility problem. Add to this the fact that many Palestinians view him as a puppet in the hands of the US and Israel.
Moreover, Abbas himself knows that a majority of Palestinians would not accept, at least for now, anything less than 100% of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and eastern Jerusalem. Abbas's status today does not allow him it sign any agreement with Israel that would include any concessions. Abbas would not be able to accept anything less than what his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, rejected at the botched Camp David summit in the summer of 2000. If, back then, Arafat was offered, say, 95% of the territories and turned it down, who is Abbas to agree to anything less than that? In fact, no Palestinian leader would be able, at least not in the foreseeable future, to accept anything less than 100%.
Abbas had an opportunity to prove to everyone that he is a serious leader but he missed it: it was after he came to power in January 2005. Before the election, he promised that if he won, he would wage an all-out war on rampant corruption in the Palestinian Authority and that all those who had stolen public funds would be punished. But instead of fulfilling his pre-election platform, Abbas "surrounded himself with many of the same corrupt figures who had served under Arafat," according to Fahmi Shabaneh, a senior intelligence official who had been appointed by the Palestinian leader as head of the anti-corruption unit in the Palestinian security services.
Abbas and Fatah are responsible for Hamas's victory in the 2006 election: the movement ran under the banner of Change and Reform, promising voters to end to end financial and administrative corruption and establish good government. They had a chance to turn the Gaza Strip into the Hong Kong of the Middle East after the Israeli pullout in 2005, but did nothing substantial in this regard, driving frustrated and disenchanted Palestinians into the open arms of Hamas. After Fatah lost the parliamentary election in 2006, it tried, with the help of the Americans and Europeans, to topple the Hamas government - an attempt that backfired and even increased Hamas's popularity.
On the other hand, many Palestinians seem to have internalized the fact that no Israeli government would ever withdraw to the pre-1967 boundaries or allow Fatah or Hamas to control half of Jerusalem.
So why does Abbas appear inclined to return to the negotiating table? Because of the heavy pressure the Americans and the Europeans have been exerting on him in recent weeks, the Palestinian leader's aides in Ramallah have explained.
Abbas is a weak leader who, as some of his aides have admitted, "lacks charisma and is not liked by his own people." The question that many Palestinians are asking is not whether Mahmoud Abbas will return to the negotiating table, but if the talks will lead anywhere. And most are convinced that Abbas and Israel are simply wasting their time.
For all these reasons, those who are betting on Abbas and Fatah will sooner or later discover that they had made the wrong calculation.
This is not to say that Hamas is in any way a better alternative to Abbas, but those who think that Abbas and his Fatah party are reliable partners who can deliver something are living under an illusion. Fatah cannot deliver anything: The party does not have the power and credibility that would enable it to sell a peace agreement with Israel to a majority of Palestinians.
Fatah lost the January 2006 parliamentary election to Hamas, and has since failed to reform -- or even to draw the appropriate conclusions from its humiliating defeat.