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New P.A. Cabinet Demonstrates That Arafat Still Firmly in Control

For a few hours this week, some Israeli observers took special interest in the health of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

It wasn’t out of concern — but rather out of hope that nature would do what Israel’s government hasn’t dared to do.

Arafat’s private physician was rushed from Jordan to examine the 74-year-old Palestinian Authority president, who was said to be suffering from a severe case of the flu. To the disappointment of many Israelis, the doctor came out of Arafat’s Ramallah headquarters and declared, “We were astonished to find him in good health, despite his living in unhealthy conditions.”

And Arafat, who also emerged briefly from the compound to show that he was in fine form, indicated he was ready to go ahead with his new Cabinet.

Unlike the outgoing Cabinet of former Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, the new one is sure to suit Arafat’s taste — after all, he essentially put it together.

Abbas’ Cabinet was short-lived because it refused to confront Islamic terrorist groups, didn’t meet any Israeli government demands and dared to challenge Arafat’s leadership. Arafat decided to teach Abbas a lesson, bringing about his resignation after scarcely four months.

Politically strengthened by the Israeli government’s decision in principle two weeks ago to “remove” him, Arafat is determined to prove that he is more relevant than at any point in the three-year-old Palestinian intifada.

The incoming P.A. prime minister, Ahmed Karia, is expected this week to introduce a small Cabinet of 10 to 12 ministers — after receiving the green light from Arafat, of course.

Unlike the previous Cabinet, Arafat will no longer accept ministers not to his liking. Thus, Abbas’ strong man, Internal Security Minister Mohammad Dahlan, was deposed, to be replaced by a long-time associate of Arafat, Yussuf Nasser.

Some consider Nasser a moderate, but too weak to exercise any policy independent of Arafat’s orders.

Even before Karia formed his Cabinet, he urged Israel to be magnanimous and welcome it with “a dramatic gesture” that would “renew the political process.”

But initial reaction to the new Palestinian government was cool in Jerusalem, as it was in Washington, where no one expected anything good to come out of a political leadership so closely linked to Arafat.

The most Israel was willing to offer the Cabinet was the benefit of the doubt. The Israeli line was: Let Karia’s government prove itself, then we’ll see.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that if Karia’s government “does not have political authority independent from the machinations of Yasser Arafat,” then “we’re not going to be able to move forward on the ‘road map’ ” peace plan.

But Arafat has shown no signs of flexibility. He rejected pressure from the United States and Egypt to include Dahlan in the Cabinet, determined to show Israel and the United States that he will do things his way.

Karia was one of the architects of the Oslo Accords. But 10 years after the signing of the “Memorandum of Understanding” on the White House lawn and three years after the launching of the intifada, he was not expected to make good on the Palestinians’ repeated commitment to eradicate terrorist groups.

There was, however, a flicker of hope: According to unconfirmed press reports, Hamas leader Sheik Ahmed Yassin in the past few days has sent messages to militants in the West Bank asking them to restrict their “operations” to Jewish targets only in the West Bank — that is, Jewish residents of that area, military targets and Israeli drivers.

In other words, under Yassin’s orders, an “operation” such as the Rosh Hashanah murder of an 8-month-old baby at the settlement of Negohot is considered legitimate, but attacks inside Israel proper should be suspended because they might elicit Israeli reprisals and targeted killings.

Karia is well aware of the catch: He realizes that as long as Israel and the United States regard his government as illegitimate, it will be almost impossible to make progress toward peace. However, he also feels he has few options for the time being and prefers to close Palestinian ranks before trying other options.

“Karia knows the rules of the game, and that’s why he chose to form a government loyal to Arafat and that is widely supported by the Palestinians,” Mamduh Nawfal, an Arafat advisor, said this week.

The choice of Nasser as interior minister — nominally responsible for those branches of the P.A. security apparatus that don’t report directly to Arafat — is one measure Karia took to secure the cooperation of Arafat’s Fatah movement.

But Arafat maintains control of the Presidential Guard and other key security organs. That, together with the decision that Arafat and Karia will jointly run a security council that sets security policy, means Arafat maintains control over all the myriad Palestinian security services, to one degree or another.

If Karia does manage to achieve national unity, he will need to take measures to win the support of Israel and the United States. Mussa Abu Za’abut, a member of the Islamic faction in the Palestinian Parliament, probably will be appointed health minister, also responsible for liaison with Hamas and other militant groups.

Other radical names mentioned as new ministers are Kais Abdul Karim, of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and Ahmad Majadleh, of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

It was not clear whether veteran negotiator Saeb Erekat would join the Cabinet as minister in charge of negotiations with Israel. Erekat said early this week that he expected to stay out of the Cabinet because any peace talks would be managed through the PLO, not the P.A. government — but he also was reported to have said that he would consider other portfolios.

The bottom line is that neither generals such as Nasser, nor influential figures like Erekat, will determine much of anything in the new Palestinian leadership.

The ultimate decisions will be made by Arafat from within, and by Hamas’ Yassin as leader of the P.A.’s main militant opponent.

That means that two of Israel’s worst enemies are the key to the immediate future — assuming, of course, that neither of them has the urgent need of a doctor in the near future.

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