- The Washington Times - Friday, September 5, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas yesterday went public for the first time in his quarrel with Yasser Arafat, telling the Palestinian parliament to either support him or fire him.

As he spoke, hundreds of Arafat supporters outside the building branded him a traitor and several masked men from the crowd forced their way inside and smashed windows before being evicted by guards.

Mr. Abbas’ ultimatum to lawmakers follows a two-week behind-the-scenes struggle with Mr. Arafat for control of Palestinian security services, which had prompted rumors he would step down.

“As you know, I do not cling to this post. I never made and will never make any effort to keep it for myself,” Mr. Abbas said, reading from a prepared speech to mark his first 100 days as prime minister.

“You either back me up to carry out my duties that you entrusted me with, or you take them away,” he said.

Outside, some in a crowd of about 200 protesters cloaked their heads in checkered kaffiyeh scarves and identified themselves as part of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militant wing of Mr. Arafat’s Fatah organization.

The U.S.-backed peace effort depends on Mr. Abbas, as both the United States and Israel refuse to deal directly with Mr. Arafat, whom they consider tainted by terrorism.

The Palestinian prime minister wants the 83-member legislature to reaffirm the mandate it gave him three months ago.

Although 18 lawmakers opposed to Mr. Abbas signed a petition demanding a vote of confidence, the parliament did not set a date for a vote.

Legislators said Mr. Abbas would probably have lost such a ballot if it were held yesterday, forcing him to resign.

Instead, they decided to spend the weekend discussing the prime minister’s future while seeking a way to defuse the situation.

A closed session is scheduled for tomorrow while the next open meeting is slated for Wednesday.

“Wherever there is politics, there will be friction,” said Saeb Erekat, an Arafat associate whose appointment this week as lead peace negotiator was seen as a concession by Mr. Abbas. “I don’t think we are an exception.”

President Bush has publicly embraced Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, as a Palestinian leader capable of negotiating an end to three years of violence with Israel.

Mr. Abbas’ departure would threaten the U.S. “road map” peace initiative to create a Palestinian state by 2005.

The seeds of the current showdown were planted several months ago when Mr. Abbas and Mr. Arafat agreed to divide control of different Palestinian security services.

Under pressure from the United States and Israel to crack down on the militant Islamic group Hamas after an Aug. 19 suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed 21 persons, Mr. Abbas moved to consolidate authority over the Palestinian police forces.

Mr. Arafat balked at the idea of relinquishing more power. And as Israel responded to the terrorist attack with an assassination campaign against Hamas leaders in the Gaza Strip, Mr. Abbas’ support among Palestinians buckled.

While mediators have tried to mend the rift, the two leaders have resisted meeting one another.

Mr. Abbas has portrayed a unilateral cease-fire, declared by the armed Palestinian groups June 29, as his main achievement so far. He accused Israel of sabotaging the truce with targeted killings, arrest raids, and of evading its obligations under the peace plan.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher praised Mr. Abbas for pursuing progress on the peace plan and seeking to unify security forces. The Palestinians, Mr. Boucher said, “can only get a state by ending terrorism.”

The road map requires that the Palestinians dismantle militant groups. Mr. Abbas has said he wants them to disarm, but told parliament he will not order a crackdown.

“This government does not deal with the opposition groups with a policing mentality, but with a mentality of dialogue,” he said.

Though Mr. Abbas has little support among rank-and-file Palestinians, there appears to be a widespread understanding that his ouster could deal a heavy blow to efforts toward statehood.

“The prime minister can’t function with partial responsibility. If not, then he’ll go home,” said Elias Zananiri, a spokesman for Mr. Abbas’ security chief, Muhammad Dahlan. “The ball is in the legislature’s court.”

Elsewhere yesterday, Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli soldier in an ambush near the West Bank town of Jenin. The Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, which is responsible for numerous suicide bombings against Israel, claimed responsibility.

In Europe yesterday, Germany and France declared that the road map to peace is still intact, despite the regional obstacles.

“Despite the obvious difficulties … nothing could justify us saying that the road map is dead,” Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said at a press conference in Dresden with French President Jacques Chirac.

“I would have said the same thing,” Mr. Chirac said.

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