Abbas and Arafat declare a different kind of cease-fire

JERUSALEM — Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas have pulled back from the brink of their power struggle, lest it endanger the "road map" peace plan.

Last weekend Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president, went so far as to call Abbas, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, a traitor.

Abbas "betrays the interests of the Palestinian people," Arafat reportedly said during a meeting with United Nations envoy Terje Roed-Larsen. "He behaves like a new recruit who doesn't know what he is doing."

On Monday, however, the two reached a cease-fire of sorts with the mediation of senior Palestinian and Egyptian officials that led to a formula for dividing power.

Abbas promised to raise with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon the question of restrictions on Arafat's freedom to travel from his Ramallah headquarters. In addition, Arafat succeeded in making Abbas' security minister, Mohammed Dahlan, who has pledged to take a tough line on terrorist groups, subordinate to a security oversight committee that is packed with Arafat loyalists.

Senior Arafat adviser Saeb Erekat said that a Palestinian leadership council, which includes PLO heads and is controlled by Arafat, would continue to have the final say over negotiations with Israel, underscoring that Abbas is not a free agent in his political dealings.

Contrary to the expectations of Israel and the United States, Arafat has been acting from a position of power.

Judging from a recent poll by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, Arafat enjoys solid support among the Palestinian public, at 64 percent, while Abbas receives only 41 percent.

Three weeks after Palestinian terrorist groups declared a temporary cease-fire on attacks against Israel, Abbas still has not convinced the Palestinian public that ending hostilities will serve their interests better than continuing the violence. Worse yet, his relations with Arafat have never been so bad during their four decades of partnership at the helm of the PLO.

The good news is that Abbas is putting up a fight.

Israeli observers perceive Abbas' offer last week to resign from the Central Committee of Fatah — Arafat's mainstream PLO faction — not as a sign of weakness but as a maneuver in the circuitous struggle to replace Arafat as Palestinian leader.

Abbas may not enjoy the full support of his people, but he has the United States, European Union, Egypt, Jordan and Israel behind him.

He has met openly with Sharon in Jerusalem; Dahlan meets regularly with Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz; and his representatives met last week with Israel's justice minister, Yosef "Tommy" Lapid, at his office in "occupied" eastern Jerusalem.

The ultimate proof that Abbas means business is Arafat's determination to confront him. Arafat knows a potential threat when he sees one: The man who has been written off so many times is again fighting for his political life, and he will do everything in his power to belittle Abbas.

That's why Sharon, ahead of his visit to Europe this week, relaunched his campaign against Arafat, saying he was undermining Abbas and sabotaging progress toward peace.

Tension between Arafat and Abbas have increased as the road map progresses. The tension burst into the open last week when Arafat and his allies accused Abbas of gaining little from Israel in exchange for the terror groups' cease- fire announcement.

Arafat's circle spread charges that Abbas and Dahlan were too soft on Israel, particularly on the issue of releasing Palestinian prisoners. Israel is not required to release prisoners under the road map, but believes the move might strengthen Abbas' popularity at home.

So far Israel has released only 280 prisoners, but none "with blood on their hands" — that is, who were involved in terror attacks — or who are members of Hamas or Islamic Jihad, the main partners to the cease-fire.

Dahlan told Israeli officials that Israel must release many more of the roughly 5,800 prisoners in Israeli jails, regardless of their record or political identity, if it wants to help Abbas and the road map.

It's not just a matter of negotiating tactics: With so many Palestinian families affected, the Palestinian public regards a massive release of prisoners as a precondition of progress with Israel.

Many Israelis, however, believe that releasing prisoners who took part in terror attacks would suggest that such tactics are as legitimate as other means of struggle.

Still, in an attempt to strengthen Abbas, Israeli government sources leaked to the press that Israel would release an additional 300 prisoners, including some from Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Decisions are likely to be taken before Sharon's scheduled visit to Washington at the end of the month.