Palestinian power struggle leaves Arafat clinging to reign

JERUSALEM — Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority's new prime minister, is interested in starting down President Bush's "road map" toward peace and a Palestinian state, but first he must overcome a rather substantial road block: Yasser Arafat.

The central committee of Fatah, Arafat's political party and the main force in Palestinian politics, convened on Sunday in Ramallah, but the session was interrupted after only 15 minutes by a major conflict between Arafat and his prime minister.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, presented the Palestinian Authority president with a list of 23 candidates for his new cabinet. Arafat didn't like what he saw.

The list contained Arafat rivals such as Nabil Amr — one of the first Palestinian politicians to criticize Arafat in public — and Mohammad Dahlan, former head of the Preventive Security Service in the Gaza Strip.

Arafat stalwarts, such as Information Minister Yasser Abed-Rabbo, were demoted to ministers without portfolios. Saeb Erekat, an influential member of Palestinian negotiating teams with Israel and perhaps the Palestinians' most recognized international spokesman, was dropped from the list altogether.

Arafat reportedly saw the list as the final blow to his reign and quoted a verse from Islamic scripture: "Have mercy on a great leader who has fallen."

It remains to be seen how much political mercy prevails in Ramallah nowadays, but the list has become subject to negotiations between Abbas and Arafat. With President Bush promising to present the road map as soon as Abbas's cabinet is sworn in, the debate for now is delaying diplomatic progress.

Some Palestinian analysts fear that Arafat, realizing that this may be the last showdown of his political career, would put up a fight that could split Palestinian political circles. If things deteriorate, Arafat might resort to firing Abbas — or Abbas could resign, as he has threatened in the past.

The general feeling in Ramallah this week, however, was that the two would overcome their differences, because in effect one can't function without the other.

By law, Abbas needs only the parliament's approval for his government. But he wants the endorsement of Fatah's central committee, believing it will smooth the way for a vote in parliament, perhaps by the end of this week.

Abbas is hailed in Israel and abroad as a moderate, at least by the standards of Palestinian politics. He demands a Palestinian state in the entire West Bank and Gaza Strip, with its capital in eastern Jerusalem and insists as well on the "right of return" for millions of Palestinians and their descendants to homes they lost in Israel more than half a century ago.

Those stances mirror Arafat's public pronouncements. Yet since the intifada began two-and-a-half years ago, a rift has been growing between the pair.

Seeing the devastation the intifada has brought the Palestinians, Abbas reportedly has grown disgusted by Arafat's refusal to renounce violence and terrorism. Abbas argues that the Palestinians stand to gain more from nonviolent resistance, which will win international support for their struggle against Israel.

Now that he has been appointed prime minister, the publicity-shy Abbas has been trying to create his own power base, independently of the boss.

Abbas appears likely to compromise on some of his candidates, but the real test is the candidacy of Dahlan.

Abbas believes that only a strongman such as Dahlan can face down Hamas and other armed Palestinian opposition groups, which risks the prospect of civil war but is a precondition for any peace settlement.

As a compromise, Abbas suggested that he retain the all-important Interior Ministry — which oversees the Palestinian security forces — while appointing Dahlan to a lesser post from which he effectively would direct the security services.

In contrast, Arafat insists that Abbas keep the current interior minister, Hani al-Hassan, a longtime Arafat loyalist who has shown no inclination to root out terrorist elements in the security forces or confront the fundamentalist groups.

Abbas' list of candidates also reflects an attempt to strike an equilibrium among the various power bases in Palestinian society.

They represent the various regions, predominantly Gaza, Hebron and Nablus; the younger generation, mostly those local activists who were the key players in the first intifada from 1987 to 1993; the older generation, Arafat's partners in Tunis who came back to the territories only in the mid-1990s; and other local power groups.