- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas and Yasser Arafat yesterday ended a weeklong spat by agreeing on a new Cabinet that clears the way for a U.S.-backed peace initiative.

After days of unrelenting pressure from U.S., European and Arab interlocutors, Mr. Arafat acceded to Mr. Abbas' decision to give leadership of a key Palestinian military branch to Mohammed Dahlan, a Palestinian general considered to be a reformer.

President Bush had conditioned the formal release of the so-called "road map" a plan to restart peace talks and establish a Palestinian state within three years on the appointment of a new prime minister and a new Cabinet.

"The United States looks forward to working with Abu Mazen and with the Israelis as they begin the hard work of ending the violence and returning to a political process that can achieve the vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said in Washington. Abu Mazen is a another name used by Mr. Abbas.

With just hours remaining before a midnight deadline for agreement on the Cabinet, Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman shuttled repeatedly between Mr. Abbas' and Mr. Arafat's offices in Ramallah.

Diplomats from abroad called Mr. Arafat to warn him against jettisoning Mr. Abbas. But Mr. Suleiman's visit "was the most essential ingredient," said Palestinian spokesman Saeb Erekat.

"It was the last shot that we had. Without it, I don't think we would have had a solution. He shuttled between the two of them and told them to concentrate on the road map and the re-engagement in the peace process," Mr. Erekat said.

Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Korei said he would convene the legislature at the earliest possible date to confirm the new Cabinet.

The United States and Europe hope that Mr. Abbas will use the newly created position to get control of Palestinian militants and create a governing authority transparent to the outside world and free of corruption.

Palestinians are expecting him to resuscitate Palestinian government institutions and the rule of law in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which are under tight control of the Israeli army.

Mr. Arafat had opposed the appointment of Mr. Dahlan, who used to be in charge of preventive security in the Gaza Strip and played a central role in the Camp David peace negotiations, to the post of interior minister.

Instead, Mr. Dahlan was made minister of foreign affairs and given responsibility for internal security while Mr. Abbas agreed to hold the title of interior minister for himself.

The dispute reflected Mr. Arafat's reluctance to willingly give up some power, an unprecedented retreat for an Arab leader, analysts said.

Mr. Arafat was reported to have been given assurances that he would be consulted on security matters and retain responsibility for peace negotiations.

Israeli officials said Mr. Arafat's compromise reflected a weakening of the Palestinian leader but expressed concern that he would continue to limit Mr. Abbas' independence, tripping up the reform effort.

Israel has said it would consider troop pullbacks, easing of roadblocks and extending Mr. Abbas an invitation to meet with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"If it is clear this is a government that is in place and functioning, of course Israel will want to reciprocate," said an Israeli diplomat on condition of anonymity. "This is really the test for the Palestinian Authority to take action. Whether this is only a maneuver or an exercise will take a couple of days to determine."

Israel and the U.S. expect Mr. Abbas, who has criticized the militarization of the Palestinian uprising, to begin fighting Islamic militant groups such as Hamas that have carried out a three-year suicide-bombing campaign.

With Hamas enjoying the support of nearly one-quarter of the Palestinian public, going after the military groups could be tantamount to initiating civil war, Palestinian analysts have said.

Hamas officials yesterday dismissed the importance of the Palestinian Cabinet appointments.

"The Palestinians have tried governments in the past, but the governments have led back to the intifada," said Hamas leader Abdel Azziz Rantisi. "Reality dictates that we're living in a period of national liberation rather than composing governments."

The weeklong tug of war between the two leaders featured political grandstanding such as Mr. Abbas storming out of a Fatah party meeting and Mr. Arafat hanging up on a European diplomat who called to press for an agreement.

As the deadline neared yesterday, Mr. Abbas' aides were quoted saying that the talks had broken down while Mr. Arafat's confidants suggested other names for prime minister.

But for all the histrionics and threats, the compromise demonstrated that Mr. Abbas and Mr. Arafat have become mutually dependent.

Mr. Abbas has become the key to obtaining international legitimacy for the Palestinian government while Mr. Arafat remains far and away the most popular politician among the Palestinian public.

"They both need each other badly," said Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist. "Abu Mazen brings the road map and the U.S. support, and Arafat brings public support, money and power."

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