Elbowed over, Arafat still reigns

A new Palestinian cabinet faced a vote of approval Tuesday.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Palestinian legislators convened Tuesday to confirm their first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, in answer to US and Israeli demands for political reform.

The US and Israel hope the meeting will begin the process of phasing Yasser Arafat out of Palestinian political life. But Mr. Arafat's entrance into parliament with Mr. Abbas - his choice for premier - and his strong influence over the cabinet signals that for now the aging guerrilla remains not only kingmaker but king.

"Arafat continues to wield considerable authority," says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

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"Many of his people are in the emerging government and he has control over the security services. He's clearly not irrelevant."

Abbas's confirmation will trigger renewed US efforts to establish peace here, President Bush said last week. "I will work hard to achieve a two-state solution," Mr. Bush told TV journalist Tom Brokaw. "I will push and push."

After Abbas's confirmation, the US will publish a peace plan called the "road map," which outlines steps to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

This renewed US commitment to the conflict here creates a dilemma for Palestinians. Officials here say that the harder the US works to sideline Arafat, the more public support he receives. And yet Arafat's continued influence is an impediment to US involvement and to the road map's chances of success.

"The Palestinians have to put forward someone other than Arafat if there's the slightest chance that the US will use its influence to act on the road map and more specifically if the US will use its influence to get the government of [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon to move on the road map," says Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Only the US can make that happen."

Early Tuesday, before the Palestinian legislators met, events in the occupied territories underscored the difficulties ahead. In Gaza, missile fire from an Israel Defense Forces helicopter killed an official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a bystander.

In the West Bank, soldiers shot and killed two members of a militant group linked to Arafat's Fatah faction.

When the delegates did convene in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Arafat played a central role, entering alongside Abbas. "I call on you to vote confidence in the new government headed by my brother and lifelong friend, Abu Mazen," Arafat told the delegates, using Abbas's popular nickname.

Arafat reluctantly allowed the creation of a prime minister position and resisted many of Abbas's nominees for the cabinet, keeping many of his own men on the roster. The two men clashed particularly over positions involving security. Abbas was able to have his candidate, Mohammed Dahlan, named head of security, and will head the Interior Ministry, which oversees all security matters.

The US has repeatedly made it clear that Abbas's ability to rein in Palestinian militants is central to progress on the road map. And in his remarks to the parliament, Abbas said it is a priority.

"The government will concentrate on the question of security," he said. "It will tolerate no breach of discipline or violations of the law."

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.

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