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Shortly before Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas received visiting US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Ramallah this week for talks on the much-anticipated peace conference in Annapolis, Maryland, his aides handed him a letter that had just arrived from an Israeli prison.
The letter, addressed to Abbas, was written by Hussam Khader, a Fatah legislator from the Balata refugee camp near Nablus who is serving a seven-year sentence for his role in terror-related activities. Until his arrest by the IDF in March 2003, Khader, who belongs to the young guard in Fatah, was known as one of the most outspoken critics of corruption in the PA.
Moreover, Khader has always enjoyed enormous support among grassroots Fatah activists, especially in the West Bank, because of his public criticism of the old guard in Fatah and his repeated calls for transparency and accountability.
At one stage before his arrest, Khader said in an interview that he had been warned by Yasser Arafat's former aides that they would liquidate him if he continued to speak out against corruption and bad governance.
In his letter, which is said to have won the approval of hundreds of Fatah prisoners in Israeli jails, Khader criticized Abbas for choosing "unreliable" figures to negotiate with Israel ahead of and during the US-sponsored conference. Khader's message to Abbas was: Before going to negotiate with Israel, you must clean up the mess in Fatah, get rid of all the symbols of corruption and pave the way for the younger generation to have a larger say in decision-making.
Referring to the composition of the Palestinian negotiating team, which is headed by former PA prime minister Ahmed Qurei [Abu Ala], Khader wrote: "It's inconceivable that we should see the same people who had failed in the past, and who had sold our people false promises, conduct the negotiations today with Israel."
Calling on Abbas to hold internal elections in Fatah, Khader also warned the PA leader against attending the conference before resolving his dispute with Hamas.
The latest letter is a sign of the huge challenges facing Abbas only weeks before the conference is due to take place. Not only is he being openly challenged by Hamas on the issue of the conference, but now the criticism is coming even from members of his own faction, as well as many other Palestinians with different political affiliations.
Abbas's real problem, his critics say, is that he still hasn't absorbed the fact that Fatah first lost an election to Hamas in January 2006 and later lost control over 1.5 million Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. They argue that instead of drawing conclusions from these two "disasters," Abbas is continuing to behave as if nothing dramatic had happened. Over the past two years he has repeatedly ignored demands for major reforms that would see fresh and charismatic leaders emerge from within the ranks of Fatah.
That's why Abbas's decision to appoint Qurei as head of the negotiating team surprised not only disgruntled Fatah activists but a large number of Palestinians. The young Fatah operatives see Qurei as an old-timer who, together with many of his old guard colleagues, was responsible for the faction's poor performance and subsequent defeat in the 2006 parliamentary election. Other Palestinians hold Qurei responsible for what they see as the failure of the Oslo Accords, saying he should have struck a better deal with Israel back then.
"Ahmed Qurei belongs to an era that many Palestinians would like to forget," said a former Fatah legislator. "He is one of many former Fatah officials who were kicked out of the door by our people and are now trying to come back through the window. If you want to negotiate with Israel, you must have a clear mandate from the people. In his case, I'm not sure he even represents his own faction, Fatah."
Unconfirmed reports claimed this week that Qurei was considering stepping down as head of the Palestinian negotiating team in light of the sharp criticism. But even if he does resign, Abbas will still come under attack because of the identity of the other members of the team, first and foremost Yasser Abed Rabbo, a former PA minister and head of a tiny group called FIDA, a breakaway faction of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
Abed Rabbo does not belong to Fatah and as such he does not enjoy the backing of most of the faction's representatives. On the other hand, he has come under severe criticism because of his involvement in the Geneva Initiative - an agreement that has been denounced by many Palestinians as a "sellout" to Israel, largely because they believe it compromises the Palestinian refugees' "right of return."
Abbas's aides insist the two - Qurei and Abed Rabbo - were chosen because of their long experience in conducting negotiations with Israel. Whatever the reasons, it's evident that many Palestinians would have preferred to see new faces representing them at Annapolis.
Despite the ongoing preparations for the conference, PA officials in Ramallah say they would prefer to see the gathering postponed to allow Israel and the Palestinians more time to reach a deal on all the core issues: Jerusalem, borders and refugees. "Frankly speaking, I don't see how we can reach an agreement on all these issues in the coming weeks," said a senior PA official. "We don't want to work against deadlines, and we would prefer to see the conference delayed for a number of weeks or months. Failure at the conference will have serious repercussions for all parties."
The pressure on Abbas is not coming only from Palestinians, but from Arab countries. The Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis are also in favor of delaying the conference because of their conviction that the gap between Israel and the Palestinians remains as wide as ever. These "moderate" Arabs fear that a failure at the conference would undermine their power and play into the hands of Hamas and other radical elements throughout the Arab world.
Aware of the growing challenges, Abbas has climbed a high tree by publicly outlining his expectations from the planned conference. In a series of interviews, he has made it clear that he would accept nothing less than 98 percent of the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem. He has also stressed that there would be no compromises on the status of Jerusalem and the issue of the refugees.
This week he came up with a new precondition: the release of some 2,000 Palestinians from Israeli jails ahead of the conference. And more conditions like this are likely to come as the date of the conference approaches. Abbas is hoping that the release of the prisoners would ease the pressure on him, enhance his standing among his constituents and persuade the Palestinian public that Israel does have good intentions.
Abbas's worst nightmare is a scenario in which Israel and the US would hold him personally responsible for the failure of the Annapolis meeting, as was the case with his predecessor, Arafat, following the botched Camp David summit in 2000. As one of his aides said this week, "President Abbas is caught between the anvil and hammer. On the one hand, the Palestinians will condemn him if he brings them anything less than what he promised. On the other hand, his refusal to make concessions at the conference will be used by the Israelis and Americans to hold him responsible for the failure of the peace process."
Under the current circumstances, in which even Abbas's control over the West Bank is questionable, it's highly unlikely that he would be able to strike an historic deal on extremely sensitive issues like Jerusalem, the refugees and borders. Some Palestinians are convinced that had it not been for the IDF's presence in the West Bank, Abbas and Fatah would have succumbed to Hamas a long time ago. With Hamas successfully consolidating its grip on the Gaza Strip and growing disenchantment with Fatah in the West Bank, it's unclear if Abbas even has a clear mandate from his people to reach an agreement.