Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says that he intends to call for presidential and parliamentary elections "very soon." However, his senior associates say that a final decision on the matter has not yet been taken.
Abbas' advisors are divided on the next move: While one group urges him to call for elections to be held by April, another group warns that holding elections at this time – without the Hamas government's cooperation and approval – will only deepen the rift between Gaza and the West Bank.
Under such circumstances, Abbas will become the elected president of the West Bank, yet he may lose his legitimacy among Gaza residents.
The current dispute pertains to the question of Abbas' presidency. Hamas insists that the presidential term must end after four years, that is, on January 8th. The group bases its argument on a Palestinian Basic Law.
On the other hand, Palestinian Authority and Fatah officials say that general elections and presidential elections must be held simultaneously, and as parliamentary elections won't be held before January 2010, Abbas has at least one more year left in power. These claims are backed by the election law approved before Hamas took over parliament.
What can we expect after January 8th?Two presidents, two governments, two entities – The Hamas movement has already declared that as of January 9th, Hamas parliament speaker Dr. Aziz Dweik, currently jailed in Israel, will become president. Should Dweik remain in jail, his deputy, Dr. Ahmed Bahar, will replace him. From that moment, Hamas will view Abbas as Fatah's leader, at most.
Under such circumstances, The Gaza Strip may be designated as a "rebellious entity" by Abbas, the PA, and the Fatah movement. This would enable the PA to stop paying salaries to officials and possibly stop funding fuel shipments to the Strip. However, the chances for such aggressive move on Abbas' part are slim.
Meanwhile, PA commentators and officials present several possibilities that would prevent Gaza and the West Bank from turning into two separate Palestinian entities:
Palestinian dialogue and agreement – This possibility seems slim following the failure of the Egyptian initiative to bridge between the sides. However, it may be raised should Israel elect a rightist government that proceeds to abandon the peace process. Under such circumstances, Abbas will be forced to engage in dialogue with Hamas and reach agreement.
Broad Israeli operation in Gaza aimed at toppling Hamas – should Israel embark on an operation similar to the 2002 Defensive Shield operation, Abbas may return to the Strip, call for general elections in the PA, and proceed to lead one government.
Peace treaty between Israel and Syria - Such process will undermine the Hamas government, whose leadership is hosted by Damascus, and force it to seek dialogue channels with Fatah and possibly even with Israel. Such dialogue may lead to agreement on general elections or a deal that would divide the government pie between Hamas and Fatah. However, according to estimates, despite Turkish mediation efforts Israeli-Syrian peace is not on the horizon.
Hamas voluntarily gives up power – Such development would see a Hamas withdrawal from political life and a return to armed resistance and terrorism against Israel. Hamas is weighing this possibility, based on the assumption that it would be able to elicit other armed groups to join it – and possibly even armed Fatah factions. In such case, we will see one president, one parliament, and one PA, alongside an armed group that undermines the government defies this order.
Abbas dismantles the Palestinian Authority – this possibility was also raised by top Palestinian officials, even if only in terms of a limited-time dismantlement. Such move would mean dismantlement of all Palestinian institutions, including the Hamas-controlled parliament and its government in Gaza. In such case, peace contacts with Israel will continue in line with the format that preceded the PA's establishment – negotiations between the Israeli government and the PLO. In this framework, we will see the emergence of a new Authority with institutions that would prevent the possibility of a party like Hamas winning the elections.
Yet despite the plethora of possible scenarios, PA officials estimate that the first possibility mentioned is the most realistic – as of January 9th, the Palestinian Authority will have two governments and two presidents.