Prime minister may trigger Palestinian power struggle

JERUSALEM — Israeli and U.S. officials are hailing the choice of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister as a potential watershed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that creates new hope for a cease-fire and a new political process.

For months now, Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has been speaking out against the militarization of the intifada against Israel, which he calls a "strategic mistake" and a "dead end."

But will he be able to impose his will on the various Palestinian terrorist organizations to get them to stop the violence?

And will he be able to do anything significant against the will of Yasser Arafat, who remains Palestinian Authority president and who retains much of his executive power?

Abbas, 67, was born in Safed in the Galilee. His family fled during Israel's 1948 War of Independence, and he grew up in Syria.

Abbas is a founding member of Fatah and is considered one of the organization's top experts on Israeli society.

He has a doctorate from Moscow University, with a thesis on supposed "contacts between the Zionist movement and the Nazis." According to the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, Abbas wrote that Zionist officials collaborated with the Nazis to create a situation where the world would agree on the necessity of a Jewish homeland.

In recent years, Abbas has said that he made those statements at a time when the PLO was at war with Israel, and would not say such things now.

After the 1991 Middle East Peace conference in Madrid, Abbas was given responsibility for the PLO's negotiating strategy with Israel, and was the man pulling the strings on the Palestinian side in secret negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which Abbas co-signed with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Last September, Abbas's criticism of the intifada seemed to be coming to a head. With Arafat surrounded by Israeli tanks at his headquarters in Ramallah, Fatah officials met at Abbas's home a few hundred yards away to demand reform.

However, the protracted Israeli siege of the headquarters led Palestinians to rally around their embattled leader, alleviating pressure for reform.

Now, six months later, crucial questions remain: What powers will the prime minister get, and what powers will the president retain? Who will control the finances, who will head the armed forces and who will make the final decisions if and when talks with Israel resume?

Arafat confidant Saeb Erekat maintains that "the prime minister is there to help and assist President Arafat, not to replace him."

Abbas supporters, on the other hand, say their man will have the last word.

A power struggle between President Arafat and a Prime Minister Abbas could lead to a new dynamic that could have a major impact on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The challenges Abbas faces are immense: He will have to survive Arafat's efforts to clip his wings; he will have to establish international credibility the way Palestinian Authority Finance Minister Salam Fayed has done; and he will have to find a way to stop violence against Israel if a peace process is to proceed.

That could mean taking on the Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject any suspension of violence against Israel.

One of the reasons Fatah people pushed for reform of the Palestinian Authority is because they sensed they were losing ground in the Palestinian street to Hamas. How Abbas goes about restoring Fatah's supremacy could determine whether or not the intifada finally stops.