Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas's decision to meet with Hamas representatives in the West Bank over the weekend had a two-fold purpose: to strengthen his standing ahead of the Annapolis peace conference and to drive a wedge between Hamas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
By inviting four Hamas leaders to his office in the Mukata presidential compound, Abbas hoped to send the message that he remains the leader of all Palestinians, including those belonging to Hamas.
Abbas has been under heavy criticism from Hamas leaders and other Palestinians because of his decision to participate in the US-sponsored summit. Hamas leaders have questioned his right to speak on behalf of all Palestinians, especially those living in the Gaza Strip and the three million to four million Palestinians scattered throughout the world, saying he does not have a mandate to discuss explosive issues such as Jerusalem, refugees and borders.
The Palestinian media highlighted statements made at the meeting by Nasser Eddin al-Shaer, a former Hamas deputy prime minister, who said he and his colleagues considered Abbas the legitimate and unchallenged president of the Palestinians.
The second aim of the high-profile meeting, dividing Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, appears to have been partially successful. The meeting caught the Hamas leadership in Gaza and Damascus by surprise. Judging from the reactions of Hamas spokesmen in the Strip, it's evident that the talks left many Hamas leaders confused and embarrassed.
While some Hamas officials were quick to distance themselves from the four men who met with Abbas, explaining that the meeting had no political significance, others claimed that it was in the context of Hamas's declared policy of patching up differences with Abbas and his Fatah faction.
"The four Hamas representatives did not coordinate their moves with the Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip," emphasized one Hamas spokesman in Gaza City.
"This meeting demonstrates Hamas's readiness to reunite the Palestinians in the face of growing challenges to the Palestinian cause," said another Hamas spokesman.
The encounter in Ramallah is seen as a severe blow to Hamas leaders who are strongly opposed to any form of dialogue with Abbas.
Just a few days ago at a Hamas rally in the Jabalya refugee camp in the Gaza Strip, a senior Hamas official, Sheikh Nizar Rayan, declared that Hamas followers would pray in the Mukata security compound in Ramallah by next fall.
His remarks were taken seriously by Abbas and Fatah leaders in the West Bank, who saw them as a sign of Hamas's intention to stage a "coup" in the West Bank similar to that carried out in the Gaza Strip last June.
Rayan was the one who announced that Hamas supporters were planning to pray inside Abbas's compound in Gaza City, days before the Hamas takeover. As a commander of Hamas's military wing, he personally led the forces that captured Abbas's compound and other PA security installations in the Strip.
Rayan's threats have even drawn criticism from some Hamas leaders, who sought to reassure Abbas that their movement had no plans to overthrow his regime in the West Bank.
The four Hamas men who met with Abbas responded to Rayan's threats by holding a press conference in Ramallah where they distanced themselves from such remarks.
Regardless of Abbas's true intentions, it's possible that the talks were also aimed at sending a warning to the US and Israel that Abbas hasn't completely closed the door to reconciliation with Hamas.
The meeting, which came on the eve of US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's visit to Ramallah, may have been Abbas's way of pressuring the Americans and Israelis to hurry up and accept his conditions for attending the Annapolis gathering.