Bethlehem, West Bank - As pilgrims pay homage to their saviour down the road, I'm sitting in a meeting room at the Nisan banquet hall, trying to take the measure of the man hunched over a table before me. Mahmoud Abbas, the front-runner in the January 9 Palestinian Authority presidential race, may be sagging in the charisma department, but for Israel and much of the Western world, he's the great hope of post-Arafat Palestine.
Not here at home, though. In these parts, hope comes in small doses. While the global media celebrate the high voter registration for what is probably the most democratic election ever held in the Arab world, and Richard Gere tours the area urging locals to cast their ballots, the mood on the street is quietly skeptical.
There's nothing like a military occupation to sap electoral energy and enthusiasm. Israel is purposely limiting the number of ballot boxes in East Jerusalem and arbitrarily preventing presidential candidates from campaigning by blocking them at checkpoints. And when the winner is declared, he (there are no women in the race) will lead a nation composed of geographically separate globs of territory and oversee an administration whose responsibilities are unclear.
So on the eve of the vote, the question is not whether Abbas will defeat second-place candidate and civil society star Mustafa Barghouti - that's a foregone conclusion - but whether Palestinians will vote in large enough numbers to give Abbas the stature he needs to control armed militants and negotiate a new deal with Israel.
The president-in-waiting is fielding questions tonight behind a bouquet of flowers, wearing a white shirt and no smile. The crowd, composed of supporters and critics of Abbas's Fatah seem nowhere near running out of questions on corruption, the organization's lack of democracy, and of course, why he called for an end to military opposition to the occupation.
Abbas, better known here as Abu Mazen, listens with the world-weary air of a chair of the board whose underlings just don't understand the complexities of the real world. "We can't do magic," he says at one point, the cigarette in his right hand accentuating the point. A military response, he says, is futile when Israel has such superiority in that department. "You don't believe me? OK," he says with a shrug. And then the candidate has to go. He's tired, the organizer explains.
Not a stirring performance. When I visit Fatah offices in the discordantly opulent Palestinian Liberation Organization headquarters in a quiet corner of Ramallah, where busy men in suits hurry around the chic Euro-style furniture and abstract art, Hani al-Hassan appears as unimpressed by his candidate as everyone else.
Al-Hassan, with Arafat, was one of the founders of Fatah and recently served as his foreign affairs adviser. He says the latest strategy is to get Abbas out to more events, to make him a person rather than just a name. "He is more an academic than a man who has been dealing with the public. Abu Mazen will learn, but no one can compare him with Arafat."
Therefore, says al-Hassan, the message is, "You elect Abu Mazen, you elect Fatah." The mere association with Arafat, he says, will be good enough for 40 or 50 per cent of the votes, leaving the campaign to find the extra 20.
But will this scenario play out? The bureau chief for Al-Jazeera TV, who has been up and down dusty Palestinian streets for the past weeks, is far from sure. "I am scared that the percentage of people who will participate in this election will be very low," says Walid Omari, suggesting it may be no more than 50 per cent. "That means there will be no legitimacy for the winner."
Indeed, I find as many people saying they'll vote against Abbas because he's perceived to be the Israeli favourite as I do those who say they'll vote for him because he can deal with the Israelis. In a packed coffee shop around the corner from Ramallah's main square, I talk with retired construction worker Abrahim Uthammin. He insists on telling me first about how his family was driven from the town of Latrun in 1948, but adds that he will be voting for Abu Mazen because "he is accepted by the world."
Across the room, though, a 20-something pharmacist opines over the burbling of his shisha pipe that Abu Mazen will win, but not with his vote. "He will negotiate with the Jewish, just like they want. That is the main point."
The sad fact is that the only candidate who represents change for Palestinians is the man in second place, Barghouti - a doctor, medical charity director, pacifist, democrat and frequent Fatah foe. Holding a degree in business admin from Stanford and civil society credentials as secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, or Al Mubadara, a democratic opposition movement founded with the late Edward Said, he's a dream candidate.
But Barghouti (not to be confused with Marwan Barghouti, associated with the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade) is only pulling in 20 per cent in the polls compared to Abbas's 40.
At Barghouti headquarters, hordes of 20-somethings are running all over the place, frantic to get posters and T-shirts together to send to campaigners. Presiding over the mayhem is Abbas Melhim, the volunteer coordinator. Like many senior people in the campaign, Melhim has spent his career working for development NGOs and sees this election as a chance to build civil society. "Arafat was president of this, that and a hundred other things. But there will be no other Arafats, because Palestinians are thirsty for change," he says.
While Barghouti has a similar position to Abbas's on the creation of a Palestinian state, with Jerusalem as its capital, and refugees' right of return, he differs on his pitch for a national unity government. He proposes that all political players have a role, including Hamas, the group responsible for many suicide bombings. Already, the Marxist-oriented Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, best known for its hijackings in the 1960s and 70s, has endorsed Barghouti, who is committed to non-violent resistance.
But Hamas would be an even bigger catch for the would-be consensus candidate. The Islamist group is sitting out the presidential elections because it does not support the Oslo Accords from which they and the Palestinian Authority came. If it were running, Hamas might do well. In the municipal elections in the West Bank, it took at least nine of 26 councils.
Few however, expect the org to realize its dream of an independent Palestine run according to Islamic sharia law - Palestinians are too secular for that. But Hamas's fortunes soar when day-to-day circumstances dive, as they have during the violence of the last five years. Whether Israel one day has to share borders with an officially Islamic state depends in large part on what slack it cuts Abbas when he's installed as Palestinian Authority leader.
Even erstwhile Fatah supporters believe Abbas is bound for failure. One of them is Abu Ahmed (not his real name), a member of the Al-Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, a military arm of Fatah formed after Ariel Sharon's inflammatory visit to Temple Mount. I meet Ahmed at the Italian Mall in downtown Gaza City. As we sit on plastic chairs on the front lawn, his machine-gun-toting protector sits bolt upright a few feet away, back to the wall.
Are the armed attacks over? I ask Ahmed, who spent 11 years in prison, time he put to use learning Hebrew. He's a thin, intent man whose small fingers can, I imagine, manipulate a trigger as well as the handles of the cups of Turkish coffee he insists on buying. He describes Israeli civilian casualties in Al-Aqsa ops as "taxes" for the larger number of Palestinian civilians killed by the occupying army.
He explains the current Al-Aqsa inactivity as a "ceasefire," subject to cancellation as the situation requires. Daylight turns to dusk and then to night as we talk, and it's time for us to go, Ahmed off into the night and me back to Israel. At the Erez checkpoint, the Palestinian guard orders me to "go quickly," and I walk toward the moon rising over Israel, serenaded by the silky sounds of the small-arms fire behind me that, as usual, fills the night in Gaza.