A president whose term in office expired a long time ago, and a prime minister who won about 2% of the vote when he ran in an election, have now been invited by the US Administration to hold direct peace talks with Israel on behalf of the Palestinians.

Mahmoud Abbas, the president, and Salam Fayyad, his prime minister, have even won the "backing" of two key decision-making bodies that are largely controlled by their supporters: the PLO Executive Committee and the Fatah Central Committee.

The 18-member PLO Executive Committee, which met in Ramallah last week to approve the Palestinians' participation in the direct talks with Israel, is dominated by unelected veteran officials.

Only nine PLO officials attended the meeting. The PLO constitution requires a minimum of 12 members for a quorum. This means that, contrary to reports in the Palestinian and international media, Abbas and Fayyad do not have the support of the PLO committee to negotiate directly with Israel.

With regards to the Central Council of Fatah, it remains unclear whether its 21 members ever endorsed the US invitation to hold direct talks with Israel.

Elections for the committee were held on July 8, 2009. The results of the vote, which has been denounced by many Fatah officials as unfair, was that only Abbas loyalists were elected.

Some of the committee members have even issued contradictory statements over the past few weeks regarding the direct talks. In the beginning, most of them seemed to oppose such talks unless Israel agreed to stop settlement construction and recognized the 1967 lines as the future borders of a Palestinian state.

Now, however, most of the committee members appear to have changed their minds -- clearly as a result of immense US pressure on Abbas and the Palestinian leadership.

It is not easy for a committee member who receives his or her salary from the Palestinian government to speak out in public on controversial matters.

So here is a president whose term in office expired in January 2009 -- and who has won the backing of only some of his traditional loyalists -- preparing to negotiate with Israel about extremely important issues such as borders, refugees, Jerusalem, settlements and security.

As if it is not enough that Abbas and Fayyad do not have a real mandate from their people, now they are going to lose what is left of their credibility as they appear to have "succumbed" to the outside pressure.

Abbas is in power because George W. Bush and Condaleeza Rice back then told him to stay, even though his term in office had expired.

Fayyad, who ran in the January 2006 parliamentary election at the head of the Third Way list, won only two seats. His number two, Hanan Ashrawi, has since abandoned him, making him the head of a one-man list.

Abbas was forced to appoint Fayyad as prime minister only because of pressure from the Americans and Europeans, who threatened to suspend financial aid to the Palestinian Authority if the Palestinian president failed to comply.

Fayyad's government was never approved by the Palestinian parliament, known as the Palestinian Legislative Council, as required by the Palestinian Basic Law. Parliamentary life in the Palestinian territories has anyway been completely paralyzed ever since Hamas forced the Palestinian Authority out of the Gaza Strip.

Officials in Ramallah say that the Palestinian leadership is being dragged, against its will, to the negotiating table with Israel. They say that the only reason the Palestinians agreed to hold unconditional talks with Israel is because of threats and pressure from the Americans and Europeans.

Over the past few months, Abbas and Fayyad had been telling their people that there would be no direct talks with Israel unless their conditions are fulfilled. Now, however, they have been forced to drop all their conditions and are being pressured to the negotiating table by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

Besides, who said that Abbas and Fayyad would be able to sell any agreement to a majority of Palestinians? How can any Palestinian buy an agreement from them after they told their people that they are going to the talks only because the Americans and Europeans threatened to cut off financial aid?

Any agreement Abbas and Fayyad bring back home will be seen by many Palestinians as the fruit of "extortion" and "threats" and not as the result of peace talks that were conducted in good faith.

Leaders who do not have a clear mandate from their people will not be able to strike any deal with Israel, particularly when it concerns explosive issues such as Jerusalem, refugees and settlements. The Palestinian leadership's decision to negotiate directly with Israel unconditionally has already enraged many Palestinians across the political spectrum.

Abbas and Fayyad are nonetheless not stupid. The two are well aware of the fact that they do not have a mandate to sign any agreement with Israel. This is why they will search for any excuse to withdraw from the direct talks and blame Israel for the failure of the peace process.

Under the current circumstances, it would have been better had the US Administration thought twice before issuing the invitation for the peace talks.

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