"The thing that really bothers me is not the well-known Israeli position, but the helplessness of the Palestinians and their failure to cope with Israeli logic and arguments," wrote a long-time Palestinian prisoner to his family recently. Just like all the veteran detainees, the man, who was jailed in 1989 for his actions in the first intifada, was not among the prisoners Israel freed yesterday.

Many apparently share his sense of bitterness and lack of faith vis-a-vis the Palestinian leadership, and this was particularly evident yesterday, on the day on which Israel released "new" prisoners and Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala) failed to garner his movement's (Fatah) support for the new government he proposed.

"The absurdity," the veteran prisoner continued in his letter, "is that there is Palestinian consensus with regard to the need to release all the veteran prisoners first, while in Israel there are certain differences of opinion on the same matter.

"The Palestinian leadership continues to ignore the lessons of the past. Abu Mazen and his people are continuing to pass on secretly the name of this or the other prisoner whose release they require. This list of individuals undermines a human and political principle - the principle of equality in freedom.

"How can the Israelis respect the Palestinian leadership when it doesn't respect itself and its prisoners? How can we expect the Israelis to act in keeping with the principle of justice when our leadership does not? My heart fills with anger for our negotiators and Abu Mazen."

The man's statements were also aimed at Hisham Abd al-Raziq, Palestinian minister for prisoners affairs. Al-Raziq is no less bitter, but his bitterness is directed at Israel.

"The release of these 500 prisoners is meaningless," he said yesterday to Haaretz. "It was done only to dilute slightly the overcrowding in the jails, and for nothing more. If anyone in the government of Israel thought he was helping Abu Mazen by doing so, he's mistaken."

Al-Raziq will sit on the Israeli-Palestinian ministerial committee that is slated to discuss the criteria for the release of the next lot of prisoners. The committee will convene when Israel decides the time is right. And when it does, Al-Raziq promises, "We won't agree to discuss anything other than the release of some 400 prisoners who were jailed before May 4, 1994, without exception - including residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian citizens of Israel and residents of East Jerusalem."

A number of the family members of prisoners who weren't released yesterday, among them the sister of the letter-writer, rallied yesterday outside the Palestinian Legislative Council's Ramallah headquarters a short while before the parliament began its debate on the new government. Last week, they entered the plenum itself, brandishing placards and protesting the fact that their relatives were being forgotten. Yesterday, they were asked not to enter the visitors' wing, which was filled with diplomats and political activists who had come to observe the democratic process.

The uproar that the family members of prisoners weren't able to create was created this time by the PLC members themselves. Contrary to early assessments, the Fatah movement was unable to reach an agreement on the composition of the new government proposed by Qureia. Yesterday morning, more pressure was brought to bear on the Fatah fence-sitters: If you vote in favor of such a government, they were warned, the remnants of Fatah's support in the street will disappear completely.

Indeed, Fatah members in the Gaza refugee camps demonstrated yesterday against Qureia and his proposed new government.

Qureia delivered an address that PLC members said heralded no news - neither with regard to the war against corruption in the Palestinian Authority, nor vis-a-vis the struggle against the Israeli occupation.

Thereafter, one PLC member after another, including central Fatah figures, stood up to voice their reasons for not supporting the proposed government. Of the 25 who spoke, just four expressed support for Qureia's proposal.