Abbas and Arafat: rivals who need one another

Abbas asked Palestinian legislators Thursday to boost his power, or accept his resignation.

Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and the man he appointed four months ago as prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, are working to find a way out of their power-sharing crisis, but such a resolution may mean an even more deeply stalled peace process with Israel.

Thursday Mr. Abbas told the Palestinian Legislative Council to expand his authority or accept his resignation. At the same time, 18 members of the 85-member council requested a confidence vote - eight more than the required 10 - meaning that Abbas could be voted out of office if he and Arafat do not resolve their differences.

In the Arafat-centric world of Palestinian politics, a renewed expression of support from the president would probably dissipate efforts within the parliament to unseat Abbas, who is also known by the nom-de-guerre Abu Mazen.

There is a Catch-22 quality to much of Palestinian politics in the muddle caused by the apparent breakdown of the US-backed road map toward peace. For one thing, Abbas and Arafat are competing for power - but they also need each other around.

Abbas, notes Mustapha Barghouti, a political activist who demands a greater level of democracy in Palestinian affairs, is in an awkward position. "What he's trying to do is to get the support of Arafat in order to remove Arafat," Dr. Barghouti says.

And while Arafat may resent the leadership aspirations of his own appointee, he too needs Abbas in order to foil any Israeli plan to expel him. "If [Arafat] shows he is behind" the ouster of Abbas, says a senior Palestinian security official, "he's out."

Patience wears thin

Palestinians are growing increasingly frustrated with Abbas's attempts to negotiate a solution with the Israelis, arguing that Israel has not matched Palestinian efforts to stop violence with measures to ease the Palestinians' suffering under occupation. In late June, the main Palestinian militant groups announced a unilateral cease-fire, but continued Israeli assassinations of wanted Palestinians and a Palestinian suicide bombing on Aug. 19 destroyed any sense of truce.

Palestinian frustration was on display at the PLC building Thursday, but much of it seemed highly orchestrated. As Abbas arrived at the building Thursday, several dozen young men from his own Fatah political faction - which Arafat leads - shouted slogans against him and smashed the glass bricks that frame the main door.

Abbas's bodyguards had to bundle the prime minister through a noisy, hostile crowd.

A half-dozen men wearing black clothes, black balaclavas, and military gear spray painted "down with the government of Abu Mazen" on the walls of the building. They claimed allegiance to the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade - a group linked to Fatah - and kept photographers at bay by brandishing clubs, a sword, and at least one handgun.

One of the main issues dividing Arafat and Abbas is control over Palestinian security forces. Abbas has said that he wants them consolidated under his authority, a move that would further erode Arafat's power, but one that might also enhance the PA's ability to crack down on Palestinian militants eager to torpedo talks with Israel.

Thursday the senior Palestinian security official, an ally of Abbas who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the prime minister was prepared to agree "not to demand that all security forces be put under his command." By appeasing Arafat, Abbas would win more time to promote his strategy of talking to the Israelis.

The American factor

One problem is that the US and Israel are demanding further reforms in the Palestinian security services and halting that process might cause some frustrations. "Whether it's going to satisfy the Americans - it's very premature to judge," said the senior security official.

During his speech to the PLC, Abbas acknowledged his troubles with Arafat: "I do not deny the existence of a faulty working relation between the institutions of the same authority, between the government and the presidency, between the PA and the [Palestine Liberation Organization], and this faulty issue needs a systematic treatment according to the rules of the basic law," Abbas said, referring to the de facto Palestinian Constitution.

Israeli officials in recent days have talked openly about the possibility of removing Arafat from the Palestinian territories, a threat that seems to be pushing both him and Abbas toward compromise.

"Definitely Abu Mazen does not want Arafat to be expelled, because he cannot continue without the legitimacy that Arafat confers on him," says Hani al-Masri, a senior official in the PA Ministry of Information and a former journalist. "He doesn't have enough support from Fatah, Palestinians institutions, and the Palestinian people."

"At the same time, Abu Mazen doesn't want to see Arafat traveling freely from one capital to another," says Mr. Masri, suggesting that the status quo - an Arafat caged by the Israelis in his crumbling compound in Ramallah -- suits Abbas fine.

But in spite of his empower-me-or-fire-me ultimatum to the lawmakers, Abbas sounded a note of conciliation regarding Arafat's confinement in Ramallah. " Arafat is the elected historical and legitimate leader of the Palestinian people," Abbas said. "Keeping him under siege is immoral."

The PLC will meet in closed session this Saturday, when they are expected to discuss Abbas's speech and a possible no-confidence vote.

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