Abbas's departure leaves Mideast road map hanging

Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, resigned Saturday after a rift with Yasser Arafat.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat - a man said to relish a crisis - must surely be in his element.

Some senior Palestinian leaders are blaming him, in part, for the resignation on Saturday of Palestinian Authority (PA) Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, whom Mr. Arafat appointed to the post just four months ago. And Israel is declaring more pointedly than ever before its intention to expel Arafat from the Palestinian territories.

"Arafat's expulsion is an inevitable result after years of involvement in terrorism," Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told Israel Radio Sunday, adding his voice to those of nearly a dozen other Cabinet members.

On Saturday, Israel again demonstrated its willingness to act against Palestinian political figures, this time dropping a 550-lb. bomb on a Gaza City apartment in an apparent attempt to kill Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, the founder and spiritual leader of the Islamic Resistance Movement, and other members of the organization. No one was killed in the strike, but Hamas, as the movement is known, vowed revenge.

Hamas: 'marked for death'

Hamas has been responsible for suicide attacks that have killed hundreds of Israeli civilians in recent years, and the Israeli government says it is committed to a strategy of assassinating or arresting its leaders. "They are marked for death," Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said in remarks published Sunday in the Israeli mass-circulation daily Yediot Ahronot.

One way in which Arafat might avert a return to exile would be to find a Palestinian official with moderate credentials like those of Mr. Abbas to take the premiership.

One such figure is Ahmed Qureia, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council, who is now "the most likely candidate for the position," says Hussein Sheikh, a senior leader of Fatah, the political movement that Arafat heads.

Even though Arafat is considered a tight-spot escape artist, some Palestinians are skeptical that their leader can finesse his way out of this crisis. "He will not find any plausible figure who will accept [the] job" of prime minister, says Jamal Showbaki, a minister in Abbas's Cabinet.

The blame game

One senior Palestinian security official, an ally of Abbas who spoke on condition of anonymity, says the PA president must accept limits.

"We want to have Arafat as an executive president but without absolute power," this official says. "We need the prime minister to have authority."

But Arafat remains disinclined to cede such authority. Abbas "got all the power he needed," says Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an Arafat aide.

"The problem is with the Israelis and the Americans who worked hard to not give him a chance to succeed," he adds.

Abbas's resignation took many people by surprise; Palestinian officials indicated before the weekend that the prime minister and Arafat were working to resolve their standoff over power sharing.

Those efforts evidently failed. Abbas was also said to have been put off by a small but hostile protest - organized by Fatah, probably with Arafat's knowledge - that greeted him as he arrived at the offices of the Palestinian Legislative Council on Thursday.

"The demonstration that happened here" said Mohammed Hourani, a PLC member who has been supportive of Abbas, "it hurt him."

But whatever the immediate causes for Abbas's resignation, he was embarked on a mission that in retrospect appears to have had little chance of success - "an impossible position" in Mr. Hourani's view.

Left in a lurch

Arafat appointed Abbas this April because US and Israeli leaders refused to deal with the PA president, a leader they continue to view as tolerant of terrorism.

This insistence on voluntary regime change amounted to a demand that a leader with popular legitimacy grant power and standing to someone unelected but more acceptable internationally. The arrangement was troublesome from the start, with Arafat undermining Abbas's attempts to exert control over PA bureaucracies.

Israeli officials, though pleased with Abbas's appointment as prime minister, never did many of the things that would have allowed him to muster popular support of his own - such as withdrawing from West Bank towns and cities, allowing freedom of movement for Palestinians, releasing significant numbers of Palestinian prisoners, and curbing Israeli settlements on Palestinian land.

"If [Abbas] is able to deliver on some or most of these elements," said Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki in a speech to a largely Israeli audience in early July, "I believe he will regain the support he has lost" by appearing to bend to American and Israeli demands at an early June summit in Jordan.

That didn't happen, in large part because Israel officials - as they have said repeatedly - never saw Abbas take steps to "dismantle" militant Palestinian organizations.

But Abbas always insisted on using negotiation first to persuade Palestinians to stop attacking Israel; he and other Palestinian leaders succeeded in convincing militant groups to agree to a cease-fire in late June.

His aides indicated he might use force if pushed to the wall, but until now Abbas has lacked the popular backing to use arms against other Palestinians.

Put another way, Israel demanded that Abbas use force before it would grant any peace. Abbas needed some peace up front, in order to use force.

Ben Lynfield, also in Ramallah, contributed to this report.

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