This week’s clash between Palestinian President Yasir Arafat and Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas is being seen as Arafat’s last-ditch effort to hold onto power, but observers say that in the end it may delay peace efforts and set back Palestinian aspirations for statehood.
"From my reading and the good contacts I have with the Palestinians, they understand how crucial and fragile the situation is," said Yoram Meital, chairman of the Department of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.
He said many Palestinians are concerned that Arafat, by his insistence on retaining control of Palestinian security forces, is "playing into the hands of the most radical right-wing parties in Israel that do not want to see implementation of the road map."
The road map, a three-phase peace proposal that ends in 2005 with the establishment of a Palestinian state with permanent borders, was developed by a group known as the Quartet: the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia.
President George W. Bush said the road map would be released once the cabinet assembled by Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, was approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council.
But Moshe Maoz, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the U.S. might delay release of the road map if Abbas were to resign and Arafat appointed a successor who was seen as merely his puppet. Among the names mentioned at midweek was Nabil Shaath, the planning minister. (Another name that surfaced early this week was Ahmed Qurei, the legislative council speaker also known as Abu Ala.)
"Will Shaath be acceptable to the U.S.?" Maoz asked. "That is why [many] Palestinians want Abu Mazen" because they know that with him the road map will be released, which "is in their interests."
Meital pointed out that the road map’s release might also be delayed if in a compromise between Abbas and Arafat, many of Arafat’s powers and responsibilities were restored.
"If we see in [Abbas’ cabinet] those who are Arafat’s men, there is a possibility Israel would say there is no way it would cooperate with them, and I would not exclude a similar reaction from the U.S. administration," Meital said.
A senior Bush administration official told Reuters Monday that Abbas "seems to have formed a cabinet that he wants, he needs to be put in charge and … Arafat should stop blocking."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher implored the Palestinians to form a government "urgently."
"The formation of a strong, empowered Palestinian cabinet headed by Abu Mazen and committed to serious efforts on reform and security is deeply in the interests of the Palestinian people," he said.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair weighed in on Tuesday, reportedly telling Arafat in a phone conversation that everything must be done to assure that Abbas is installed as prime minister. His call followed similar admonitions to Arafat from other European and Arab leaders.
Among those reportedly applying pressure were German Foreign Minister Joschka Fisher, Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanís King Abdullah. The European Unionís Middle East envoy, Miguel Moratinos, is said to have told Arafat that European leaders regard Abbas as the only acceptable choice for prime minister.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the 88-member Palestinian parliament and former cabinet minister, said she was concerned that even if Abbas wins the tug-of-war with Arafat, many Palestinians may believe he was imposed on them.
"It’s not going to be smooth sailing," she told The Jewish Week.
That view was echoed by Mustafa Barghouti, a member of the Communist Party who has pushed for new Palestinian elections. Barghouti said a resolution of the Abbas-Arafat clash would only be temporary.
"We will keep coming back to the same crisis," he said, adding that it will not be resolved until Abbas succeeds in demonstrating that he is able to bring about the withdrawal of the Israeli troops from the territories.
A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Ranaan Gissin, said last week that even before the release of the road map, Israel was prepared to let Palestinian security forces replace Israeli troops from some Palestinian cities and towns the moment Abbas was sworn in.
And to help shore up Abbas, Gissin said Israel would take other concrete steps: releasing some of the more than 5,000 jailed Palestinians, about 1,000 of whom have never been charged; increasing the number of Palestinians allowed to work in Israel from the present 10,000; and increasing the amount of money Israel sends to the Palestinian Authority that it collects for the PA from taxes and customs duties.
The Sticking Points
Maoz of the Hebrew University said that in trying to retain control of Palestinian security forces, Arafat is trying to stop Abbas from disbanding the Al Aksa Martyrs Brigade, the military wing of the Fatah political organization both men founded in 1965.
Abbas wants to do that by appointing former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan as his interior minister in charge of Palestinian security forces. Dahlan, who quit the security job last year in a dispute with Arafat, still has his security force in Gaza largely intact. He said last weekend that he was prepared and confident that he would be able to handle the new post.
Abbas reportedly wants not only the Al Aksa Brigades dismantled but a confrontation with two Palestinian terrorist groups that have refused to make peace with Israel: Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Arafat reportedly is against such moves, fearing they could lead to a Palestinian civil war.
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom expressed concern Monday over the political crisis in the Palestinian Authority when he spoke by phone with Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell replied that the U.S. was determined to bring about a Palestinian leadership that is "untainted by terror," according to a Foreign Ministry statement.
Sharon said Israel feared that the political struggle could end up with a strengthened Arafat and repeated that Israel will never deal with him.
Meanwhile, Russian envoy Andrei Vadovin was expected to arrive Tuesday to try to help the Palestinians implement promised reforms.
Manuel Hassassian, vice president of Bethlehem University and a political science professor, said Arafat’s efforts to block the Dahlan appointment are crucial because Abbas "wants to know if he has full authority or not. This is the ultimate test for his ability to run an independent government."
Hassassian pointed out that 23 percent of Palestinians support Hamas and that 25 percent support Fatah. In addition, he said, recent opinion polls found that only 3 percent of Palestinians said Abbas was their first choice for leader, compared with 35 percent who gave the nod to Arafat.
Noting that nearly 70 percent of those Abbas selected for his cabinet are "old faces," Hassassian said the "Palestinian people were disappointed because he didn’t bring new faces, he didn’t bring technocrats, he didn’t bring professionals" needed to implement the road map.
Ashrawi said she also regretted that the battle between Arafat and Abbas had become a personality dispute.
"The issue should not be names, it should be the political program," she said. "We don’t need more of the same musical chairs and the ‘my guys or your guys’ [conflicts]. … What I would like to see is a real commitment to a reform plan."
Although Abbas reportedly threatened to resign last weekend when Arafat balked at the Dahlan appointment, Ashrawi said: "The stakes are too high; nobody can resign. Everybody has made progress dependent on his personal assumption of powers."
Deadlock Takes Its Toll
Although Sharon said last week that he was prepared to meet with Abbas the moment he and his cabinet were sworn in, the power struggle with Arafat has taken its toll, according to Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.
"Even if there is an agreement [between Arafat and Abbas], it’s clear that Arafat is pulling the strings and that is not acceptable," he said.
Steinberg said the fact that European leaders were still speaking with Arafat and trying to convince him to cede some of his powers undermined American and Israeli efforts to make Arafat irrelevant. And Steinberg said that until these leaders understand that, "we are not going to get anywhere."
Stephen Cohen, a national scholar of the Israel Policy Forum, said that even if Abbas’ swearing-in as prime minister was delayed this week, he would not rule him out.
"The Palestinian political system is modeled on the Israeli," he said, noting that if the winning party in Israel needs more time to assemble a government, it gets the time.
"What is known is that the process is real, the struggle is real, and it is a healthy struggle," Cohen said. "The basic dynamic is such that the Palestinians are moving to a situation where it matters not that Arafat is there."
He said that whoever is sworn in as prime minister will have a "power base that is partially independent of Arafat, and that power base is based on the implementation of the road map." And Cohen added that if the Palestinians do not "operate within the parameters set by the U.S. … it would be their responsibility that the road map is stopped in its tracks."
But Rashid Khalidi, a professor of history and director of the Center for International Studies at the University of Chicago, said he does not view the road map "as the panacea" because it is different from the ideas Bush has expressed. The road map calls upon the Palestinians and Israelis to take parallel steps, but Bush has said the Palestinians must act first to stop the violence.
Stewart Ain is a staff writer. Joshua Mitnick is an Israel correspondent.