With the surrender to Hamas fighters of the last Fatah outpost in Gaza loyal to the Palestinian President
, the future for Mahmoud Abbas looks bleak.
After the death of more than 80 people in widespread fighting, his authority has now virtually disappeared in Gaza and is fast waning on the West Bank. His calls for another ceasefire have been ignored. The agreement he signed in Mecca four months ago to share power with Hamas is in ruins. His appeals to the outside world to bolster his authority have, so far, fallen on deaf ears.
Mr Abbas will now probably dissolve the unity government and appeal to ordinary Palestinians for support. He still retains personal popularity, and knows that a majority of Palestinian voters want an end to violence and back moderation. But it may be too late to go over the heads of the Hamas gunmen who control the streets.
At the start of the year, in an earlier confrontation, the President threatened to call a referendum that would have sidelines Hamas. Now, in the present atmosphere of violence, a formal vote could not be held — and whatever the result, the faction with the most power on the streets would ignore it.
It is probably also too late for outside support. Mr Abbas desperately needed a change in the refusal of Israel and the European Union to deal with the unity government, as he could then have shown that his tactics had paid off and led to the unfreezing of international aid and the release of taxes collected by Israel and owed to the Palestinian Authority.
But he could not overcome their objections. He could not therefore deliver money and jobs. Many Palestinians have concluded that, if nothing is to be achieved by moderation, they might as well back the uncompromising line of Hamas.
If he dismisses the Hamas-led government, he may try to rule by decree. But effectively that would split the Palestinian Authority in half. His word might be obeyed on the West Bank, but it would carry no weight in Gaza. If he supported an international force stationed in or outside Gaza (which has already been rejected by Hamas), Mr Abbas risks becoming fatally tarnished not only as a man who compromised Palestinian unity, but as a collaborator with Israel and its Western supporters.
He now has little option, however. If he resigns, he would see the collapse of all attempts — which he has led since the negotiation of the Oslo agreement — to seek a peaceful political solution with Israel. Such is the level of bitterness that he would have to move to another country for his own safety.
He is therefore likely to call on other Arab countries, especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, to back a force that would impose itself in Gaza and end the fighting. Whether they would be willing, however, to prop up his rule by Presidential decree remains less certain. They, too, may conclude that the battle for Gaza is lost
Michael Binyon - The Times 14/6/2007