On the eve of his visit to Washington, Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas managed to alienate many in Fatah, plunging the ruling faction into one of its deepest crises since its founding more than 40 years ago. The uproar was triggered by two controversial decisions that were taken by Abbas: to form a new government headed by Salaam Fayad, and to hold the sixth general assembly of Fatah in July in the West Bank. The controversy over the formation of Fayad's new government was not unexpected. Both Abbas and Fayad had long been under heavy pressure from Fatah to include its representatives in the new makeup. Some Fatah officials had even gone so far as to demand that Fayad be replaced by a senior member of their faction - a demand that Abbas was unable to meet, his aides explained, due to pressure from America and Europe. Just before the new government was announced last week, a group of top Fatah officials made a last-minute appeal to Abbas to reconsider his position. "How can you ignore the fact that Fatah is the largest Palestinian faction in the West Bank?" they protested. "How come neither you nor Fayad saw it fit to at least consult with Fatah about the formation of the new government?" To express their outrage over the move, the Fatah officials announced that the faction would boycott the government, and even vote against it, if and when it is presented to parliament for approval. Some Fatah figures - among them legislator Hatem Abdel Kader - who accepted an invitation to serve as ministers in the new government, were strongly criticized by their colleagues. "Those Fatah members who joined Fayad's government acted on their own, and not as representatives of Fatah," said Azzam al-Ahmed, a legislator who has been leading the "mutiny" against Abbas and Fayad. "Fatah is facing a conspiracy, and we must be on the alert to prevent it from collapsing." Despite their failure to foil the establishment of the new government, Ahmed and his friends nonetheless succeeded in scoring a minor but symbolic victory, when two Fatah would-be ministers pulled out, minutes before they were to be sworn in by Abbas. Abbas and his aides are said to have been caught by surprise by their decision to turn down the offer to join the government under pressure from the rebels in their faction. The move was seen as a severe blow to the prestige of Abbas, who reportedly reacted with fury, telling the two that they would "regret" their decision. PEOPLE IN Ramallah said this week that the fiasco surrounding the establishment of the Fayad government was yet another indication of the deepening crisis that is threatening to damage what's left of the faction's reputation. Many Fatah members have accused Fayad of working toward "marginalizing" their faction by keeping its representatives away from key government posts, and denying it access to public funds. These two measures, which have been in effect for the past two years, have seriously harmed Fatah's standing. Without the senior jobs and money, it is finding it increasingly difficult to rally more Palestinians behind it. These Fatah members miss the good old days, when they used to have exclusive control over the PA's coffers and administration. No one in Ramallah was surprised when Fatah leaflets distributed in the city in the past few days strongly condemned Fayad as a US and Israeli puppet, and threatened that he would pay a heavy price for his alleged efforts to undermine Fatah. THE TURMOIL over the new-old Fayad government came mere days after Abbas dropped a bombshell by announcing that Fatah's long-awaited sixth general assembly would be convened in Bethlehem or Jericho on July 1. The conference, which last met some two years ago, is expected to pave the way for internal elections that would almost certainly see the emergence of a new and younger leadership. The controversy surrounding the parley centers on the venue and number of delegates who are expected to attend. Hundreds of Fatah officials and activists living in Arab countries are strongly opposed to holding the conference in the West Bank, out of fear that Israel would try either to spoil the meeting, or influence the delegates in one way or another. Others say that, in any case, they wouldn't be able to attend, because Israel won't let them enter the West Bank, due to security concerns. Abbas's critics in Fatah argue that his decision to convene the conference in the West Bank would tilt the balance of power inside the faction in favor of the "local" Fatah. They believe that Abbas and his supporters are seeking to "hijack" Fatah by preventing troublemakers and hard-liners, like estranged Fatah leader Farouk Kaddoumi, from participating. It's also unclear at this stage how many Fatah members would attend the conference when - and if - it's finally convened. Some Fatah activists say that the number of delegates should be around 1,500, while others insist that less than half that figure is entitled to attend. IN MAKING these two controversial decisions, Abbas must have taken into consideration the failure of unity talks with Hamas, and the Islamic movement's recent success in holding internal elections. His aides say that he decided to ask Fayad to head the new government only after he reached the conclusion that the Egyptian-sponsored unity talks would not lead anywhere. And, they add, the decision to convene the Fatah conference was taken following criticism that the faction hasn't been able to hold one vote in 20 years, while Hamas has managed to hold internal elections four times in the past 15 years. The infighting in Fatah is likely to have a negative impact on the performance of both Abbas and Fayad. The faction has tens of thousands of supporters and members throughout the West Bank, who are capable of stirring unrest in many villages and refugee camps. It's also hard to see how the peace process can move forward while Abbas is busy extinguishing fires in his own backyard. The coming weeks will tell whether Fatah is headed toward getting its act together - or on the way to permanent divisions.