The Palestinian Authority has dispatched three senior PA officials to Damascus in an attempt to persuade the Syrians not to host a conference called by Hamas and other radical Palestinian factions.
The two-day conference, which is scheduled to be held in Damascus on November 7, was called in response to the US-sponsored peace conference in Annapolis later this year.
The three officials who were dispatched to Damascus are Nasser Yussef, Rouhi Fattouh and Saleh Ra'fat. They will try to persuade the Syrians to ban the conference under the pretext that it would undermine the PA's standing and deepen divisions among the Palestinians. The three are also expected to warn the Syrians that the planned conference would damage relations between Syria and the PA.
Nimer Hammad, senior political advisor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas, said the conference served Israel's interests because it would show that the Palestinians are weak and divided. He also warned that the gathering would have a negative impact on efforts to resume peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel.
The conference is expected to bring together several Palestinian "rejectionist" groups, as well as dozens of Palestinian figures representing various political factions.
The purpose of the conference is to send a message to Abbas and the PA that they don't have a mandate to strike a deal with Israel at the Annapolis conference.
PA officials have expressed deep concern over Syria's decision to host the parley. They view the conference in the context of Hamas's efforts to establish a new PLO.
"The conference in Damascus will deepen divisions among the Palestinians," a senior PA official said. "This is the first time that several Palestinian factions are talking about the possibility of establishing an alternative to the PLO, which is still regarded by many Palestinians as their sole and legitimate representative."
In addition to the extremist groups, a number of prominent Palestinian figures have been invited to the conference in Syria, including estranged and veteran PLO leader Farouk Kaddoumi. The Tunisian-based Kaddoumi, who also serves as secretary-general of Fatah, is an outspoken critic of the Oslo Accords and the current PA leadership under Abbas.
Invitations issued by Hamas and its political allies described the Syria parley as the "Palestinian National Conference for Resisting Schemes Aimed at Liquidating the Palestinian Cause."
"Their declared goal is to foil the Annapolis conference," said another PA official. "What's worrying is that the conference will be held under the auspices of the Syrian regime, which is also unhappy with the US efforts to reach a deal between the Israelis and Palestinians."
The PLO's parliament-in-exile, the Palestine National Council, urged the Syrian authorities to prevent the gathering for fear that it would escalate tensions in the Palestinian arena. The council also warned against attempts to establish a new PLO, "which was built thanks to the sacrifices of our martyrs, first and foremost president Yasser Arafat."
The council accused Hamas of seeking to exploit the conference to divert attention from its violent takeover of the Gaza Strip.
"Hamas wants to legitimize its coup in the Gaza Strip through this conference," it said.