With Fate of ‘road Map’ in Balance, Arafat and Abbas Make Up — for Now

Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas have pulled back from the brink of their power struggle, lest it endanger the “road map” peace plan.

Last weekend Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, went so far as to call Abbas, the P.A. prime minister, a traitor.

Abbas “betrays the interests of the Palestinian people,” Arafat reportedly said during a meeting with U.N. envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. “He behaves like a new recruit who doesn’t know what he is doing.”

On Monday, however, the two reached a cease-fire of sorts with the mediation of senior Palestinian and Egyptian officials that led to a formula for dividing power.

Abbas promised to raise with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the question of restrictions on Arafat’s freedom to travel from his Ramallah headquarters. In addition, Arafat succeeded in making Abbas’ security minister, Mohammed Dahlan, who has pledged to take a tough line on terrorist groups, subordinate to a security oversight committee that is packed with Arafat loyalists.

Senior Arafat adviser Saeb Erekat said that a Palestinian leadership council, which includes PLO heads and is controlled by Arafat, would continue to have the final say over negotiations with Israel, underscoring that Abbas is not a free agent in his political dealings, Ha’aretz reported.

Contrary to the expectations of Israel and the United States, Arafat has been acting from a position of power.

Judging from a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, Arafat enjoys solid support among the Palestinian public, at 64 percent, while Abbas receives only 41 percent.

Three weeks after Palestinian terrorist groups declared a temporary cease-fire on attacks against Israel, Abbas still has not convinced the Palestinian public that ending hostilities will serve their interests better than continuing the violence. Worse yet, his relations with Arafat have never been so bad during their four decades of partnership at the helm of the PLO.

The good news is that Abbas is putting up a fight.

Israeli observers perceive Abbas’ offer last week to resign from the Central Committee of Fatah — Arafat’s mainstream PLO faction — not as a sign of weakness but as a maneuver in the circuitous struggle to replace Arafat as Palestinian leader.

Abbas may not enjoy the full support of his people, but he has the United States, European Union, Egypt, Jordan and Israel behind him.

He has met openly with Sharon in Jerusalem; Dahlan meets regularly with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz; and his representatives met last week with Israel’s justice minister, Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, at his office in “occupied” eastern Jerusalem.

The ultimate proof that Abbas means business is Arafat’s determination to confront him. Arafat knows a potential threat when he sees one: The man who has been written off so many times is again fighting for his political life, and he will do everything in his power to belittle Abbas.

That’s why Sharon, ahead of his visit to Europe this week, relaunched his campaign against Arafat, saying he was undermining Abbas and sabotaging progress toward peace.

The Bush administration has refused to meet with Arafat, considering him irredeemably tied to terrorism. The momentum to Abbas’ appointment began in June 2002 when President Bush set the replacement of Arafat as a condition for eventual Palestinian statehood.

Sharon has asked European leaders to stop meeting with Arafat, arguing that such contact reinforces Arafat’s standing and prevents Abbas from establishing his own power base. Most European leaders have refused, however, saying Arafat was popularly elected and therefore is legitimate.

On Sunday, Sharon was asked at the weekly Cabinet session why he did not exile Arafat and dismantle his Ramallah headquarters. Sharon replied that the issue would not be discussed at the Cabinet — implying that it was not altogether irrelevant.

Arafat appointed Abbas, his longtime No. 2, as premier last April, following heavy pressure by the United States and European Union. Since then, however, both Arafat and Abbas have consistently said that Arafat remains the supreme Palestinian leader, and Abbas consults with him on every decision of substance.

But tension between the two has increased as the road map progresses. The tension burst into the open last week when Arafat and his allies accused Abbas of gaining little from Israel in exchange for the terror groups’ cease-fire announcement.

Arafat’s circle spread charges that Abbas and Dahlan were too soft on Israel, particularly on the issue of releasing Palestinian prisoners. Israel is not required to release prisoners under the road map, but believes the move might strengthen Abbas’ popularity at home.

So far Israel has released only 280 prisoners, but none “with blood on their hands” — that is, who were involved in terror attacks — or who are members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, the main partners to the cease-fire.

Dahlan told Israeli officials that Israel must release many more of the roughly 5,800 prisoners in Israeli jails, regardless of their record or political identity, if it wants to help Abbas and the road map.

It’s not just a matter of negotiating tactics: With so many Palestinian families affected, the Palestinian public regards a massive release of prisoners as a precondition of progress with Israel.

Many Israelis, however, believe that releasing prisoners who took part in terror attacks would suggest that such tactics are as legitimate as other means of struggle.

Still, in an attempt to strengthen Abbas, Israeli government sources leaked to the press that Israel would release an additional 300 prisoners, including some from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Decisions are likely to be taken before Sharon’s scheduled visit to Washington at the end of the month.

Abbas thus is fighting on two fronts: He fights for more flexibility on the Israeli front, while on the home front he fights for more power.

His main foes, the loyal supporters of Arafat, are concentrated in the Central Committee of Fatah. Last week Abbas challenged Fatah to come up with a better government policy, saying he would resign as prime minister if it could.

Dahlan, meanwhile, challenged the very authority of Arafat’s friends, calling for the first elections to the Fatah central committee in 13 years. He is trying to use popular demands for greater democratization of the Palestinian Authority to serve his own ends.

The stakes on the home front are not only political, but financial and military. Arafat still controls the larger part of the Palestinian armed forces. Just as Dahlan was strengthening his grip in the Gaza Strip, Arafat tried to counterbalance him by reviving Jibril Rajoub, the former head of security forces in the West Bank.

Former comrades-in-arms, Dahlan and Rajoub are “veterans” of Israeli jails from the 1970s and 1980s; both are considered pragmatists and future leadership candidates.

Rajoub had lost grace with Arafat, the Palestinian political establishment and the Palestinian public because he did not stick closely to Arafat during the Israeli siege on Ramallah in the spring of 2002, and because his headquarters capitulated quickly to Israeli forces.

Now Arafat has called Rajoub back in from the political cold: After Rajoub returned from cancer treatment in Germany, Arafat offered him responsibility for the regional governors in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

The governors are responsible for the Palestinians’ security forces in their areas. The move was clearly designed to limit Dahlan’s military control and to turn him against his old ally, and thus weaken the Dahlan-Abbas axis.

The appeasement meeting between Arafat and Abbas, however, seems to have relaxed the tension — for the time being.

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