- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 7, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas resigned yesterday after months of feuding with Yasser Arafat, leaving the United States without a Palestinian partner in its latest effort to broker Mideast peace.

Hours after Mr. Abbas submitted his resignation, an Israel F-16 fighter jet fired a missile into a Gaza City building in an unsuccessful bid to assassinate Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the spiritual leader of the militant group Hamas and the highest-level Palestinian ever targeted by Israel.

The resignation left the Bush administration scrambling to salvage its “road map” peace effort that began in June with President Bush and Mr. Abbas standing side by side at a summit in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt.

The White House said it was determined to press on with its peace efforts, but would continue to snub Mr. Arafat, whom it considers corrupt and compromised by links to terrorists.

“At this critical moment, it is important that all parties consider carefully the consequences of their actions,” White House spokesman Scott McClellan said yesterday.

“The creation of the office of prime minister was a key turning point for the Palestinian Authority in the development of new institutions to serve all the people, not just a corrupt few tainted by terror,” he said.

“The prime minister must be supported by a Cabinet committed to fighting terror, political reform and rooting out corruption.”

In a closed session at the Palestinian parliament yesterday, Mr. Abbas announced his resignation, and he blamed the United States, Israel and Mr. Arafat.

In a meeting with Palestinian lawmakers after the announcement, Mr. Arafat declared Mr. Abbas’ Cabinet a caretaker government and said a new prime minister would be named within two weeks.

During the Palestinian political drama, an Israeli air force jet fired a missile on a three-story apartment building in a middle-class Gaza City neighborhood where the Hamas leadership was meeting.

Israeli television reports said the air force had targeted a meeting at which Sheik Yassin and other Hamas leaders were planning new attacks. Palestinian sources said Sheik Yassin, a 68-year-old quadriplegic who is widely revered among his followers, was paying a social call.

Israel, which began an assassination campaign against leaders of the Islamic militant group in retaliation for its Aug. 19 bombing of a Jerusalem bus that killed 22 Israelis, accuses Sheik Yassin of handing down the religious rulings that inspire Hamas operatives to carry out terrorist attacks.

Sheik Yassin, who was slightly wounded in the attack, vowed that Hamas would retaliate for the attack, while Mr. Abbas condemned the strike as “criminal,” the Associated Press reported.

Israel’s offensive against Hamas contributed to a leadership crisis in the Palestinian Authority that led to Mr. Abbas’ resignation.

Addressing lawmakers two days ago, Mr. Abbas challenged the parliament to either support him or fire him.

Still, the resignation came as a surprise to Palestinians. Lawmakers were planning to discuss Mr. Abbas’ plan for government reform and peace talks over the next few days while trying to forge a compromise with Mr. Arafat.

The two leaders had battled over control over Palestinian security forces, which were responsible for stopping suicide attacks on Israelis and disarming militant groups.

The prime minister also suffered from a perception among Palestinians that he was a U.S. and Israeli puppet who failed to ease the conditions for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip since taking office four months ago, Palestinian officials said.

“What good did dealing with Americans or Israel do over the last three months,” said Elias Zaniniri, a Palestinian Interior Ministry spokesman. “Nothing happened.”

In a statement, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office said the resignation was an “internal matter” of the Palestinians, but added that Israel would not deal with Mr. Arafat or one of his allies in peace talks.

The resignation prompted fresh calls in Mr. Sharon’s government to banish Mr. Arafat from the Palestinian territories.

“We need to expel Arafat,” said Israeli Health Minister Danny Naveh. “The damage of keeping him here is much greater than the damage from expelling him.”

U.S. officials have begun to discuss with Israeli counterparts a possible decision to expel the Palestinian leader — something the Bush administration has pressed Israel not to do, according to Israel television reports.

Many fear that such a move would plunge the West Bank and the Gaza Strip into greater chaos while reviving international sympathy for the Palestinian leader.

Mr. Arafat met with politicians from his Fatah party last night to discuss the resignation.

Possible replacements for Mr. Abbas included Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Korei and Nablus businessman Munib al-Masri, a former mediator between Mr. Arafat and former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and Finance Minister Salam Fayad.

“We are entering a new crisis, and the price of this crisis will be the shedding of a lot of blood,” Kadoura Fares, a legislator from the ruling Fatah movement told the AP.

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