Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was conspicuously absent from last week's ceremony in Washington, where direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians were launched under the auspices of the US Administration.

Fayyad's absence is a sign of the limited role that the Western-backed prime minister plays in the process of decision-making in the Palestinian Authority.

Fayyad was not in Washington because the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority leaders did not want him to be there.

These leaders see Fayyad as a threat to their exclusive hegemony over the Palestinian issue. They want a prime minister whose role is limited to inaugurating new cinemas, roads, shopping malls and Turkish baths.

The leaders in Ramallah would rather see Fayyad help prepare the largest Knafeh, a traditional Middle Eastern sweet, than sit at the negotiating table with Israel.

The argument that Fayyad was not taken to Washington because it Is the PLO, not the Palestinian Authority, that is negotiating with Israel, is irrelevant. In the past, Prime Ministers Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei played an active role in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

Contrary to the widely-believed perception in the West, Fayyad does not decide on important issues related to the peace process.

There Is a feeling among many Palestinians that in the West Bank that there is more than one authority: one headed by Mahmoud Abbas and another by Fayyad.

Sometimes one gets the impression that the two authorities are in competition or are functioning separately and speaking in two voices.

Fayyad was not consulted about the decision to launch direct talks with Israel unconditionally. Some Palestinians say that because of tensions between the two, Abbas and Fayyad rarely meet or talk.

Important decisions in the Palestinian Authority are taken either by Abbas's office or other bodies such as the PLO Executive Committee, the Fatah Central Committee and the Fatah Revolutionary Council.

The two have separate offices and hold separate meetings in Ramallah with visiting dignitaries.

Fayyad seems to be the man whose job is to talk to the West, while Abbas's main mission is to address Palestinians and Arabs.

Following last week's terror attack in which four Israelis were killed near the West Bank city of Hebron, Fayyad and Abbas issued different "condemnations."

Fayyad called the attack a "disgraceful act" and said that the Palestinian people are "united in non-violent, pacifistic resistance against settlements, the occupation and the terrorist behavior of settlers."

Abbas, on the other hand, issued a statement in which he said that he condemns all acts of violence against Palestinian and Israeli civilians. Abbas added that the deadly attack was designed to "disrupt" the peace process."

The two men even seem to disagree on Fayyad's plan to unilaterally declare a Palestinian state after creating irreversible facts on the ground. His grandiose plan for building state institutions has yet to be fully endorsed by the Palestinian leadership.

Despite the progress he has made on the economic front in the West Bank, Fayyad still has no real power over the various branches of the Palestinian security services, whose commanders report directly to Abbas's offices. Nor does he have real power over the Palestinian media, whose representatives continue to receive instructions from Abbas's office as to what they are allowed or not allowed to publish.

Fayyad can maybe lay the corner stone for a new orphanage in a Palestinian village, but he still does not have the power to appoint even a deputy governor or a commander of a police station.

True, the Palestinian Authority has "lowered the tone" regarding anti-Israel incitement, but that is mainly because of pressure from Western donors, not because of Fayyad's influence. However, the general tone in the Palestinian Authority's message to the Palestinians continues to regard Israel as an enemy and not a peace partner.

Fayyad's plan to build state institutions seems to be remarkable, but there is no way it can succeed when Fatah and other forces are breathing down his neck and placing obstacles in his way.

The Palestinian Authority wants a powerless prime minister like the ones in Egypt, Syria, Jordan and other Arab dictatorships where presidents and monarchs have the final say on all important matters.

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