Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, travels to Washington next week for talks with President Bush. In this report from Washington, VOA Senior Correspondent André de Nesnera looks at a major challenge facing Mr. Abbas, how to deal with the militant group Hamas.
Mahmoud Abbas has been president of the Palestinian Authority for about nine months. Since his election last January, he has begun addressing some major internal problems, such as fighting corruption, reforming the security apparatus, and improving the economic well-being of the four million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza.
But analysts say Mr. Abbas faces an even greater test, how to deal with extremist groups, such as the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Islamic Jihad, and the largest group, Hamas, also known as the Islamic Resistance Movement. All three are on the State Department's list of terrorist organizations.
Experts say Hamas' aim is clear, the destruction of Israel. And, they say, the group will continue to use violence, including terrorist attacks on civilians, to achieve that goal.
The Israeli government has called for Mr. Abbas to crack down on terrorist groups. Shortly after becoming president, Mr. Abbas was successful in getting Hamas to agree to a cease-fire that has held, with minor infractions.
But Rand Corporation Middle East expert Seth Jones says it is unrealistic to believe that, under present conditions, Hamas and other groups will renounce violence altogether, despite the positive step of Israel's recent withdrawal from Gaza after 38 years of occupation.
"But, as long as there are still issues to resolve over a Palestinian state - issues related to settlements, territory, the status of Jerusalem, refugees - there will continue to be violence," he said. "And, in fact, for some members of Hamas and other groups, like Islamic Jihad, I suspect, that, as long as Israel continues to exist as a state, and it will, there will be violence by these individuals. So, somehow, the idea that Abbas will be able to eliminate the use of violence by these groups, like Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, is naïve. The issue is whether he can limit the use of violence, because Hamas and groups like Islamic Jihad are not going to give up violence willingly."
But experts say Hamas is not just a militant organization bent on Israel's destruction.
Meyrav Wurmser, expert on the Middle East with the Hudson Institute, says Hamas is part and parcel of the social fabric of Palestinian society.
"Hamas holds and maintains a tremendous amount of charitable operations, from kindergartens to soup kitchens, to anything else you could imagine, in terms of community services," she explained. "It plays a tremendous role in what has really become an area of great vacuum in Palestinian society. People need it. If you need to send your child to kindergarten, where he is going to get a warm meal, then you are going to send him to Hamas' kindergarten. It is unfortunate, but it is a reality."
One of the major problems facing Mahmoud Abbas is corruption within the ruling Palestinian Authority.
Seth Jones of the Rand Corporation says the issue of corruption plays into the hands of Hamas.
"Corruption works positively in Hamas' favor, because when the Palestinian Authority, in particular in Gaza, is viewed as corrupt, that means the support for Hamas strengthens, because Hamas is then viewed as an organization that is much better and much less corrupt," he noted. "When Israel conducts strikes or assassination operations in the West bank and Gaza, that tends to weaken the Palestinian Authority at the expense of Hamas. If you look at public-opinion polls, which is really an important indicator of where Hamas stands, we see that, over the last couple of months, support for Hamas, in particular in Gaza, has crept up to about 36 percent. And where does it stand for the Palestinian Authority? About 40 percent."
Mr. Jones says the parliamentary elections in the West Bank and Gaza, scheduled for January, will be a real test of Hamas' political strength.
A leading expert on Palestinian politics, Nathan Brown, with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says the key is whether Hamas ultimately will be able to forsake violence for the political process.
"From an outside perspective, these people are spoilers, and they are the ones who have never accepted the abandonment of violence as a tool," said Mr. Brown. "[For] Palestinians, even Palestinians who are opposed to Hamas, this is a valid political party, like all other political parties. And, Abbas is trying to treat them that way. And by treating them that way, in a sense, almost turn them into a regular political party. It is a little bit of an attempt to create a self-fulfilling prophecy. And there has been, again, some limited progress - with the cease-fire, with getting Hamas to run for local elections, to get them to talk about running for parliamentary elections, which should be held in January. But it is still not quite clear whether Hamas has made that mental leap to only being a political party alongside others."
Many experts say there must be more progress on the overall peace process, in order for Mr. Abbas to be successful in getting militant groups to lay down their weapons for good, and join the political process. If there is no movement, analysts say, this will simply embolden those groups to continue their violent attacks, and make the search for peace even more difficult.