Arafat, Karia Struggle for Power As Interim P.A. Cabinet Takes Office

One of the wonders of Palestinian politics is the durability of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the speed with which his rivals evaporate into thin air.

Until a few weeks ago, P.A. Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and Internal Security Minister Mohammad Dahlan were being touted — by the Americans and Israelis, at least — as the Palestinian leaders of the future.

Now, one can almost ask: Abbas who? On Sept. 6, after four months of tension with Arafat, Abbas resigned, saying he would not serve as a figurehead prime minister.

This week, Abbas’ successor, Ahmad Karia, threatened that he, too, might resign because of Arafat’s schemes to deny the prime minster real power.

If he stays on, Karia will have to decide on a policy toward Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al-Aksa Brigade, terrorist groups that the Palestinian Authority pledged to eliminate under the “road map” peace plan. Israel and the United States are waiting to see how Karia acts against the terror groups before deciding whether to renew peace talks with his government.

Like Abbas, Karia is expected to conclude that internal peace among various segments of Palestinian society is more important than peace with Israel.

“We may differ in views,” Karia told the Lebanese daily a-Nahar in a recent interview, “but it is a mistake to use Palestinian arms against Palestinians . . . we need a dialogue and we aspire to achieve it.”

But Karia found out that he needs to satisfy more than just internal politics: Arafat also is standing in his way.

Arafat tried to twist his arm, but Karia — a shrewd and experienced politician, unlike his predecessor — found a roundabout way to deal with the chairman. Unlike Abbas, he did not say “definitely not” to Arafat’s demands.

Instead, Karia announced that the emergency Cabinet that Arafat appointed last week, when he feared harsh Israeli retaliation for a suicide bombing in Haifa, would remain in office for the next 25 days. Afterward, when a new government is formed, it will have ” a new prime minister too,” Karia told reporters.

As the ruling Fatah Party’s central committee met this weekend in Ramallah, Karia announced that he would not seek renomination when a new permanent Cabinet is formed in three weeks.

The message to Arafat was clear: Karia will not confront him head-on, but if Arafat insists on playing his own cards, then let him look for other players when the interim period is over.

Despite its limited mandate, Karia’s Cabinet has faced strong opposition inside and outside the Palestinian Legislative Council.

Both secular and fundamentalist factions published statements attacking the government, following Karia’s statement that “chaos must be put in order” in the Palestinian territories.

Both Israel and the United States consider Karia an extension of Arafat, and they are biding their time.

“We would like to see what it will do against terrorism,” a White House spokesman said of Karia’s government.

Even at its swearing-in, the Cabinet faced a crisis: Karia’s designated interior minister, Nasser Yousef, refused to attend, demanding a vote of confidence from the Palestinian Legislative Council and written assurance from Arafat that Yousef would receive full responsibility for all Palestinian security services. Arafat has refused to loosen his grip on the security services, a crucial lever of control.

The crisis in the Palestinian leadership has not been resolved; it was only postponed, and both sides are trying to buy time.

Arafat proved once again that he will not tolerate a serious challenge to his authority. He wants to be sure that the new Cabinet will be totally obedient, and if it takes more time, then so be it — after all, as recent polls have shown, he remains by far the single most popular political figure among the Palestinian public.

Karia wants to buy time as well. He realizes that Arafat’s physical condition is declining and that a lot can change in the 25 days that his interim government has left.

However, there also is a good possibility that nothing will change. One possible scenario is that Arafat could keep renewing the emergency degree, cutting the Parliament out of the process, postponing real change and keeping the reins of power in his hands.

If Karia indeed does step down, several names have been mentioned as replacements. Among them are Saeb Erekat, a former P.A. interior minister, and Nabil Sha’ath, a former foreign minister. There are even some saying that Abbas could yet return.

Perhaps the only certainty in Palestinian politics is that Arafat will continue to do all he can to stay front and center.

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