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U.S. Bet on Abbas For Mideast Peace Meets Skepticism

"The challenges confronting Abbas are significant. He must stymie further support for Hamas, reverse his government's reputation for corruption and demonstrate that it can provide greater security and economic opportunity in the West Bank," said a U.S. official who has seen the array of intelligence reports.

"Hamas is working hard on a parallel track to show that it can effectively govern and represent the interests of the Palestinian people. Should Abbas fail and Hamas succeed, the implications are problematic for Abbas's internal constituencies and external supporters," the official said.

But Hadley said on "This Week" that Bush sees "an opportunity . . . to show the Palestinian people a choice between the kind of violence and chaos under Hamas in Gaza and the prospect, under President Abbas and Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad, for an effective democratic Palestinian state."

U.S. intelligence has warned that Abbas will have difficulty following through on what he has promised for the past 18 months and what most Palestinians want from him domestically: to clean house and rebuild Fatah with a younger generation of politicians. Broad reform -- by the Fatah-dominated emergency government or within Fatah itself -- is unlikely to happen anytime soon, analysts have warned.

In the nearly three years since he took over after Yasser Arafat's death, Abbas has not been able to exert enough authority to command or produce action. "He doesn't have the political legitimacy of either Arafat or [Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed] Yassin," said Bruce Riedel, a recently retired CIA Middle East analyst now at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.

Despite Hamas's money problems, the intelligence assessments note that the party intends to be taken seriously and is trying to institute smoother local rule in Gaza.

"On the one hand, a West Bank-first strategy is a commendable effort to make lemonade out of lemons. But it also seems to be an extension of the mistaken belief that sufficient efforts to isolate and pressure Hamas will make Hamas go away. Hamas will not go away," said Paul Pillar, a former chief Middle East analyst on the National Intelligence Council. "Hamastan in Gaza has tremendous potential to rebound to everyone's disadvantage -- not just to the Palestinians', but also the Israelis'."

Riedel and Pillar both said they believe that the Bush administration is not listening closely to the intelligence community on the Palestinian crisis.

With support from the international community, including Israel, Abbas may appear to have the upper hand in the near term, but Hamas is also not without allies intent on its long-term survival. "The Iranians, Syrians and Lebanon's Hezbollah do not want to see a West Bank-first strategy succeed, and all have great potential and means to be able to make this thing go downhill very quickly," Riedel said.

Abbas is also likely to be conflicted about the impact of isolating Gaza indefinitely, the assessments warn. "It will be very hard for him to turn his back on the plight of 1.2 million Palestinians in Gaza," Riedel added. "He may be angry at Hamas today, but he will not be in a position to tolerate a policy that punishes 1.2 million people, and as a political leader, he can't afford to do it."

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