Palestinian cabinet clash endangers road map to peace

Arafat may miss Wednesday's internationally imposed deadline for approving a cabinet.

With a deadline looming, a battle over Palestinian political reform is under way - one that could determine the success of a US-backed plan to end this conflict.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is locking horns with the Prime Minster-designate, Mohammed Abbas, over the makeup of a new Cabinet. The US and Israel condition peace talks on reforms and a new leadership separate from Arafat, who they see as corrupt and condoning violence.

The clash between Mr. Arafat and Mr. Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, might prompt Abbas' resignation before the Wednesday deadline. Their struggle will determine Mr. Arafat's future, the shape of Palestinian political life, and the extent to which the US engages in this conflict.

"A lot is at stake," says a foreign diplomat, who emphasizes the "road map" peace plan backed by the US, European Union, Russia, and the United Nations.

"The road map requires a credible new Palestinian government. It has proved to be a very painful process, but it's not just the road map, it's the prospect of serious US engagement to get a peace process going. If Palestinians let that go, they will be making a huge miscalculation."

In stormy meetings, Abbas and Arafat have argued over nominees, and Abbas has threatened to resign. The US has told Abbas not to "give up" and, along with Egypt and Jordan, has pressured Arafat to accept the nominees, according to an Israeli newspaper.

Once Abbas's Cabinet is approved, first by the central committee of Fatah, the main Palestinian faction led by Arafat, and then the Palestinian Legislative Council, he would officially take up the prime minister post.

At that point, the US will publish the road map and, Israeli newspapers say, might invite Abbas to the White House, an honor President George Bush has never accorded Arafat.

Abbas has complained that the vocal US support and Israeli statements about boosting his standing by easing conditions for Palestinians does not help.

"The backing of the US is absolutely a drawback," says Hisham Ahmed, a political science professor at Bir Zeit University in the West Bank. "People feel Abbas' role doesn't emanate from Palestinian political life, it comes from without, so it's viewed with tremendous skepticism."

But if Abbas resigns, it would disappoint the US. "And if the fighting goes on, the US will say, 'All right, the Palestinians aren't interested,' and distance themselves," says the foreign diplomat.

Arafat, who has authority to dismiss the prime minister, wants more of his loyalists in the Cabinet, but the central conflict is over the interior minister post, who oversees security issues.

Abbas has tapped Mohammed Dahlan, who was the head of Palestinian security in the Gaza Strip until Arafat removed him. The Israelis and Americans see Mr. Dahlan, a fierce Arafat critic, as capable of stopping Hamas and Islamic Jihad, a key demand.

The security post is doubly sensitive for Arafat, who had wanted his close friend, the current interior minister Hani al-Hassan, to remain in the position. "Mr. Arafat is against Mr. Dahlan because he knows who controls the police and security has all the power," explains Hafez Barghouti, editor of the Jerusalem-based Al Hayat Al Jaddidi newspaper.

And if Abbas and Dahlan succeed in stopping violence where Arafat didn't, it will reflect extremely badly on Arafat. For Arafat, his legacy is of vital importance.

Palestinians say he fears being sidelined by Abbas and left at best a figurehead, at worse a political footnote at the crucial moment of Palestinian statehood.

"He believes he's the keeper of the Palestinian national project and he doesn't want to lose this," says Mr. Barghouti.

Barghouti echoes other analysts when he says that many of the ministers attacking Abbas are driven by personal motives. "They don't see the situation from the national point of view, but from the view of their personal power bases," he says.

The public seems to share their lack of enthusiasm for Abbas. A recent poll shows that 39 percent of Palestinians feel Abbas won't make any difference in the conflict with Israel, while 22 percent said he would harm their interests. Arafat remained the most popular figure.

Mr. Ahmed says Palestinians don't blame Arafat for the lack of progress, but distrust Abbas, whose Cabinet nominees include reformers and Old Guard figures considered corrupt.

"People are desirous of change and real reform, but in their minds, individuals like Abbas are tied to corruption," says Ahmed. "There aren't too many people on the street in his favor."

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