If Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas loses control of his Fatah faction, who gets to comfort him? Could it be his erstwhile rivals in Hamas?
Abbas has been facing increasing criticism in the past weeks from senior Fatah officials in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip. It seems that they have tired of his autocratic-style rule. Some of them, including Jibril Rajoub and Tawfik Tirawi, have even come out in public against the PA president, demanding that he share power enough at least to appoint a deputy president.
Fatah seems to be in even worse shape in the Gaza Strip. Fatah leaders and activists there have accused Abbas of "marginalizing" the faction, and are making unmistakable break-away noises.
At a meeting of Fatah cadres in the Gaza Strip last week, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority leadership were castigated for turning their backs on the faction there.
Fatah's top representative in the Strip, Zakariya Al-Agha, said that the faction's leaders, including Abbas, do not want to see Fatah (in the Gaza Strip) reorganize itself and "pick up the pieces."
Another senior Fatah official in Gaza, Abdel Rahman Hamad, took advantage of the meeting to announce that, "Some were trying to turn Fatah in the Gaza Strip into a "weary and spiritless body."
Fatah leaders in Gaza are furious with Abbas. They have a substantial list of grievances. First, Abbas has not paid the salaries of thousands of their members there, including policemen and security officers who have been sitting at home since Hamas seized control over the Strip in 2007.
Moreover, they point an accusing finger at Abbas's failure to include any Fatah members from Gaza in a recent decree to appoint 130 Palestinians as senior officials within the Palestinian Authority.
Abbas's failure to hold general elections for the Fatah faction is a further issue of contention. It is roundly suspected that the PA president is deliberately delaying the vote in order to prevent his rivals in the faction from winning key positions.
Amal Hamad, a resident of the Gaza Strip and member of the Fatah Central Committee, joined the chorus of Abbas detractors, declaring, "We wish to tell our (Fatah) brothers in the West Bank that we are an integral part of you. We are an original part of this homeland. It's time to end the state of silence and put matters on their right track."
Hamad's remarks are the strongest yet to be directed against Abbas and the Fatah leadership in the West Bank. Palestinian political analysts read in Hamad's words a signal that Fatah might well be facing the threat of splintering, one group in the West Bank and another in the Gaza Strip.
The deepening divisions among Fatah could also drive the Fatah cadres in the Gaza Strip into the open arms of Hamas. Hints to this effect have been dropped in recent weeks by Fatah officials in Gaza. They have noted that they do not rule out the possibility of joining forces with Hamas and Islamic Jihad and other Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip as a way of protesting their continued "marginalization" by Abbas.
And then there is always Qatar. As the crisis in Fatah intensifies, reports have surfaced of a fresh Qatari effort to achieve "national reconciliation" between Fatah and Hamas. According to the reports, the two parties are scheduled to hold "secret talks" in Doha in the coming days in yet another bid to form a Palestinian national unity government.
Senior Fatah officials have dismissed these reports as simply the most recent in a long line of attempts by Abbas to divert attention from the crisis he's facing in his own backyard (Fatah).
"Each time we hear about increased tensions in Fatah and criticism of President Abbas, we suddenly receive reports about renewed efforts to achieve reconciliation with Hamas," one official said. "The talk about Fatah-Hamas reconciliation is nothing but a smokescreen to conceal the growing discontent with President Abbas's autocratic rule."
Hamas aside, Qatar's reconciliation ventures could be put to good use by Abbas: perhaps it would be willing to host a sulha (reconciliation) meeting to end the internal strife plaguing Fatah, the predominant power in the PA. Fatah's festering dissension points to a Palestinian political scene that could be headed toward complete chaos -- especially in the West Bank.
Abbas seems firm in his refusal to pave the way for the emergence of a new leadership in the West Bank. A split within Fatah in the West Bank seems the inevitable result. Palestinians may see several Fatah officials officially break away from the faction and create their own leaderships -- turning the West Bank into so many cantons ruled by rival Fatah leaders. Of course, under such conditions, the Palestinian Authority would hardly hold its own as a central power in the West Bank.
As for the Gaza Strip, Fatah discontent is likely to escalate in the wake of Abbas's continued policy of "marginalizing" the Fatah members there. Having already lost the Strip to Hamas, Abbas may soon lose his loyalists there. In the end, Gaza could see the emergence of a Fatah leadership that does not report at all to its sister in the West Bank.
Fatah is Israel's purported "peace partner" -- the faction that is spearheading efforts to establish an independent Palestinian state. Yet one wonders if Palestinians will live long enough to see their leaders lead them towards a state -- or even a better life.
Decision-makers in the U.S. and Europe might wish to keep abreast of the solvency of Abbas's Fatah faction when they consider the wisdom of the two-state solution.
Khaled Abu Toameh is an award-winning journalist based in Jerusalem.