Fearing Final Battle of His Career, Arafat Digs in on New P.A. Cabinet
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Fearing Final Battle of His Career, Arafat Digs in on New P.A. Cabinet

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Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority’s new prime minister, is interested in starting down President Bush’s “road map” toward peace and a Palestinian state, but first he must overcome a rather substantial road block: Yasser Arafat.

The central committee of Fatah, Arafat’s political party and the main force in Palestinian politics, convened on Sunday in Ramallah, but the session was interrupted after only 15 minutes by a major conflict between Arafat and his prime minister.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, presented the Palestinian Authority president with a list of 23 candidates for his new Cabinet. Arafat didn’t like what he saw.

The list contained Arafat rivals such as Nabil Amr — one of the first Palestinian politicians to dare criticize Arafat in public — and Mohammad Dahlan, former head of the Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip.

Arafat stalwarts such as Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo were demoted to ministers without portfolios. Saeb Erekat, an influential member of Palestinian negotiating teams with Israel and perhaps the Palestinians’ most recognized international spokesman, was dropped from the list altogether.

Arafat reportedly saw the list as the final blow to his reign and quoted a verse from Islamic scripture: “Have mercy on a great leader who has fallen.”

It remains to be seen how much political mercy prevails in Ramallah nowadays, but the list has become subject to negotiations between Abbas and Arafat. With President Bush promising to present the road map as soon as Abbas’s Cabinet is sworn in, the debate for now is delaying diplomatic progress.

Some Palestinian analysts fear that Arafat, realizing that this may be the last showdown of his political career, would put up a fight that could split Palestinian political circles. If things deteriorate, Arafat might resort to firing Abbas — or Abbas could resign, as he has threatened in the past.

The general feeling in Ramallah this week, however, was that the two would overcome their differences, because in effect one can’t function without the other.

By law, Abbas needs only the parliament’s approval for his government. But he wants the endorsement of Fatah’s central committee, believing it will smooth the way for a vote in parliament, perhaps by the end of this week.

The truth is that Abbas himself has been one of Arafat’s closest associates for decades. With Arafat’s blessing, he was the top Palestinian representative in the Oslo peace negotiations.

He also joined forces in the mid-1990s with Israeli politician Yossi Beilin to formulate the famous Beilin-Abu Mazen plan, an informal blueprint that outlined mutual concessions toward a peace agreement — though Abbas later disavowed the document.

Abbas is hailed in Israel and abroad as a moderate, at least by the standards of Palestinian politics. He demands a Palestinian state in the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, with its capital in eastern Jerusalem and insists as well on the “right of return” for millions of Palestinians and their descendants to homes they lost in Israel more than half a century ago.

Those stances mirror Arafat’s public pronouncements. Yet since the intifada began two-and-a-half years ago, a rift has been growing between the pair.

Seeing the devastation the intifada has brought the Palestinians, Abbas reportedly has grown disgusted by Arafat’s refusal to renounce violence and terrorism. Abbas argues that the Palestinians stand to gain more from nonviolent resistance, which will win international support for their struggle against Israel.

Now that he has been appointed prime minister, the publicity-shy Abbas has been trying to create his own power base, independently of the boss.

Abbas appears likely to compromise on some of his candidates, but the real test is the candidacy of Dahlan.

Abbas believes that only a strongman such as Dahlan can face down Hamas and other armed Palestinian opposition groups, which risks the prospect of civil war but is a precondition for any peace settlement.

As a compromise, Abbas suggested that he retain the all-important Interior Ministry — which oversees the Palestinian security forces — while appointing Dahlan to a lesser post from which he effectively would direct the security services.

In contrast, Arafat insists that Abbas keep the current interior minister, Hani Hassan, a longtime Arafat loyalist who has shown no inclination to root out terrorist elements in the security forces or confront the fundamentalist groups.

Abbas’ list of candidates also reflects an attempt to strike an equilibrium among the various power bases in Palestinian society.

His candidates represent the various regions, predominantly Gaza, Hebron and Nablus; the younger generation, mostly those local activists who were the key players in the first intifada from 1987 to 1993; the older generation, Arafat’s partners in Tunis who came back to the territories only in the mid-1990s; and other local power groups.

In trying to please all of them, however, Abbas left most dissatisfied.

Nabil Amr called the dissension with Arafat “a serious problem,” but expressed the hope that mediators would resolve it.

As negotiations in Ramallah continued, Israel waited for the Americans to present the road map. As long as the Palestinians have not resolved their own internal disputes, Abbas won’t be able to introduce the internal reforms that Israel and the United States regard as preconditions for peace talks.

The Israelis ask whether Abbas really means business: Will he be able to meet at least part of the demands for real anti-terror moves to allow for renewed negotiations?

There was one positive sign this week: According to P.A. officials, Palestinian police in Jericho earlier this month turned over to Israel weapons and explosives seized from “Palestinian insurgency groups.”

The Israeli army confirmed that Palestinians handed over 12 gas canisters filled with explosives, 50 pipe bombs, an illumination bomb and an anti-tank rocket.

Officials said Abbas sought the move to mark the start of his tenure — and that it had Arafat’s approval as well.

Publicly, Israeli officials preferred to stay out of the Palestinian power struggle, waiting for the dust to settle.

“The question is whether there will be a real change or whether Arafat will continue to be a driving force in the Palestinian Authority,” Education Minister Limor Livnat said.

But critics of the Israeli government, such as legislator Mohammad Barakeh of the far-left Hadash Party, charged this week that implementation of the road map depended more on Israel than on Abbas. Israel was exaggerating in its description of the differences between Abbas and Arafat, he said.

“They both regard each other as partners, and the attempt to turn them against each other does not lead anywhere,” Barakeh said.

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