Elbowed over, Arafat still reigns
A new Palestinian cabinet faced a vote of approval Tuesday.
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"The government will concentrate on the question of security," he said. "It will tolerate no breach of discipline or violations of the law."Skip to next paragraph
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During negotiations over the cabinet, though, Arafat ensured that he would have a say in security decisions as well as control over negotiations with Israel. When talks about the road map begin, visible signs of Arafat's involvement could cause problems, says Mr. Alpher of the Jaffee Center.
"Who will actually brief the Palestinian negotiators when they go for talks with the Israelis and who will they brief first when they come back - [Abbas] or Arafat?" Alpher asks. "If it's clear it's Arafat, then from the US and Israeli standpoint we're back to square one. If that emerges we're in real trouble."
This latest Israeli-led drive to push Arafat aside began in December 2001, when Mr. Sharon declared his longtime rival "irrelevant."
After laying siege to Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah in January 2002, Sharon isolated Arafat there, keeping him under virtual house arrest. Israel refuses to guarantee Arafat's safety if he leaves - some Israelis lawmakers advocate expelling him - and so Arafat has refused to leave the shattered compound.
But a combination of charisma, money, international recognition, and adversity keeps Arafat in control, analysts say.
"He still has political power by the mere fact that he holds part of the Palestinian purse, he's still dispensing a lot of money," says Ephraim Inbar, a political scientist at Bar Ilan University, outside Tel Aviv. "Part of the international community also regards him as an important player and this gives him legitimacy."
Arafat's choice of a premier will also ensure his continued influence.
Abbas, a quiet, scholarly-looking man, has no natural constituency of his own and has never pursued positions of prominent authority.
"He doesn't have the fire in the belly you'd expect from the politician who will challenge Arafat," says Alpher.
But Arafat's oft-cited status as a symbol of Palestinian hopes for statehood might be his most potent asset: It is hard to sideline a symbol.
"He is the one person who incarnates in his personality the Palestinian struggle," says Mr. Siegman. "That explains his continued ability to impede the work of anyone else who aspires to leadership."
Palestinians say that it also means that US and Israeli pressure backfires, increasing Arafat's stature and a sense among Palestinians that they must be loyal to him. "President Arafat has gained more popularity as a result of Israeli and American efforts to weaken him," says Ghassan Khatib, who will be minister of labor in the new cabinet.
Those efforts continue. Israeli officials recently told the visiting foreign minister of Japan that she should not meet with Arafat, as contacts with him would weaken Abbas. US officials have also said that Secretary of State Colin Powell will raise the issue of visits to Arafat's compound during his upcoming trip to the Middle East.