- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 2, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Supporters and rivals of Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas are laying down markers ahead of a special parliamentary session tomorrow that could determine the viability of Mr. Abbas’ leadership — and with it a U.S.-backed peace plan.

Barely three months after Mr. Abbas took power amid hopes he would offer a moderate alternative to longtime President Yasser Arafat, his Ramallah office is still pungent with the odor of leather sofas and furniture polish on his gleaming cherrywood desk.

But at least some legislature members already are talking openly about using the session — called by Mr. Abbas to report on his first 100 days — to force a confidence vote that could bring him down.

Mr. Abbas’ supporters, meanwhile, say the prime minister will not back away from plans to present the lawmakers with a 20-page program to clean up corruption in the Palestinian Authority — threatening the entrenched interests of many members — and to restart peace talks with Israel.

“We will go there with a clear position,” said Palestinian Minister of Information Nabil Amr, a key Abbas ally. “If they want to support it, we are ready to continue. If not, they’ll have to find another prime minister.”

Many fear a vote to oust Mr. Abbas would end whatever stock remains in the “road map” peace initiative sponsored by President Bush, who has pinned his hopes on Mr. Abbas to end three years of violence and deliver a peace deal.

Support for Mr. Abbas, who came to power with the backing of Israel as well as the United States, has never been strong among the Palestinians. It has eroded further with the killing of 21 Israelis in an Aug. 19 bus bombing in Jerusalem and a series of retaliatory Israeli assassinations of Hamas leaders, the latest of which injured 15 civilians in the Gaza Strip yesterday.

Frustrated by his inability to prevent the Jerusalem bus bomb, Mr. Abbas wants to centralize authority over some 13 Palestinian security services — a key requirement of the road-map plan — and place them under his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, a former commander of Palestinian forces in the Gaza Strip.

Mr. Arafat, who retains control over most of the Palestinian Authority troops, has balked at the idea and last week named loyalist Jibril Rajoub, the former Palestinian West Bank security chief, as his national security adviser.

“They hate each other now,” said Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia in an interview with Reuters news agency yesterday.

Members of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah faction say they will present proposals at tomorrow’s special session to ease the struggle by boosting the Palestinian president’s influence while allowing Mr. Abbas to remain as prime minister.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom also weighed in over the weekend, warning that Israel “will not negotiate with a new government formed under the instructions and the influence of Arafat.”

If the remark was intended to help Mr. Abbas, it is likely to have the opposite effect. Mr. Qureia said support for Mr. Abbas from the United States and Israel “is complicating the crisis” by making the prime minister appear as an Israeli puppet.

That perception has been especially costly for Mr. Abbas in recent weeks as Israeli forces push ahead with an assassination campaign that has killed 11 members of the militant group Hamas in six helicopter missile strikes since Aug. 19.

“The continued Israeli military action in the West Bank and Gaza Strip … makes it very difficult for us,” said Elias Zananiri, a spokesman for Mr. Dahlan.

Even some lawmakers who helped create the prime minister’s post for Mr. Abbas — sometimes known as Abu Mazen — are leaning in favor of Mr. Arafat, who remains the overarching symbol of Palestinian aspirations for independence.

“If there as an opportunity to end this dispute between Arafat and Abu Mazen by someone leaving their job, Abu Mazen should do that, not Arafat,” said Qadoura Fares, who is known for his public criticism of Mr. Arafat.

“Arafat is the elected representative of the Palestinian people,” added the legislator, one of those pushing a compromise that would clip Mr. Abbas’ wings.

When Mr. Arafat appointed his longtime deputy as prime minister, it was hailed as an unprecedented concession for the figure who has dominated Palestinian politics for three decades. While Mr. Abbas jetted off to Jordan, Washington and the Arabian peninsula to meet world leaders, Mr. Arafat remained under Israeli house arrest in his battered Ramallah headquarters.

But the U.S. hope to gradually nudge Mr. Arafat aside has not borne fruit. Although the spotlight had shifted away from Mr. Arafat, there was little erosion in his influence.

By appealing for Mr. Arafat to give Mr. Abbas free rein over the security forces in the wake of the latest Jerusalem bus bombing, Bush administration officials are implicitly admitting that the real power remains with the Palestinian president.

“Arafat is going to have to make a decision once and for all to get out of the way,” Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said last week. “And if not, then Arafat yet again proves himself as not interested in peace and progress for the Palestinian people.”

Israeli observers said the United States may have made a strategic mistake by introducing the peace plan before Mr. Arafat had been deposed.

“The very fact that [Mr. Abbas] was put into a position where he had to share power with Arafat created an impossible situation,” said Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. “What you had was a kind of hybrid regime.”

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