- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 9, 2003

With Saturday’s resignation Mahmoud Abbas as the first-ever Palestinian prime minister, ubiquitous Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is on the rebound once again. Despite extensive efforts, U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have so far been unsuccessful in permanently sidelining the Palestinian leader to the confines of history.

Mr. Abbas, who also goes by the name of Abu Mazen, surrendered what little power he enjoyed after 100 frustrating and grueling days of in-house squabbling and fighting with Mr. Arafat for control over the eight security services that abound in the Palestinian territories — an amazingly large number when considering the size of the real estate in question.

“Arafat refused to give Abu Mazen support,” Mark Regev, a spokesman with the Israel Embassy in Washington, told United Press International.

Marginalized by the Bush administration and Israel because of accusations he was tainted by terrorism, Mr. Arafat reluctantly handed over to Abu Mazen some of the powers he enjoyed keeping close over the years. Negotiating with Israel and the United States, as well as discussing the “road map” and the future of the stalled peace process that called for Palestinian statehood by 2005, fell to Abu Mazen.

But while Mr. Arafat ceded some of his authority to the prime minister, he offered no backing to facilitate Abu Mazen’s arduous task. The prime minister on his own wielded no support from “the street” and commanded even less authority to accomplish anything significant.

Additionally, Abu Mazen was expected to crack down on the Islamic fundamentalists — Hamas and Islamic Jihad, among others — who yield enormous popular support in the territories, particularly in Gaza. Several attacks by those groups against Israeli civilian targets during Abu Mazen’s 100-day term killed more people than the war in Iraq killed allied combatants. And that came during a truce self-imposed by Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

With Abu Mazen’s resignation, it would seem Mr. Arafat is back in the driver’s seat, at least for the moment. But just how long will Mr. Arafat continue to bask in the limelight? And more to the point, how much longer is Mr. Sharon’s Likud government likely to allow Mr. Arafat to remain at the helm of the Palestinian Authority? There are many in Israel, including more than a few in prominent government positions, who would like Mr. Arafat permanently exiled outside the territories, once and for all.

Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Sharon repeatedly have said they would not negotiate with Mr. Arafat, nor consider doing business with a new prime minister who would be “an Arafat puppet.” For someone traditionally slow and painfully methodical at decision-making, Mr. Arafat was unusually quick on Sunday to nominate Palestinian parliament speaker Ahmed Qureia, also known as Abu Ala, to replace Abu Mazen. By wasting no time, Mr. Arafat hoped to pre-empt a U.S.-Israeli response to the outgoing prime minister’s resignation.

Like Abu Mazen, Abu Ala is considered a moderate. He helped negotiate the 1993 Oslo accords between the Palestine Liberation Organization and Israel. But the question regarding the future of the tattered “road map” is whether Israel (and the United States) will regard him as too closely linked to Mr. Arafat to perform as a viable interlocutor in what remains of the peace process — a process that may yet disappear altogether if some in Mr. Sharon’s government get their way.

Many Middle East observers now fear Israel might take advantage of the situation in the Palestinian territories and expel Mr. Arafat, forcing him to seek exile in an Arab country. It was Mr. Sharon, after all, who as defense minister expelled Mr. Arafat from his Beirut headquarters in the summer of 1982, sending him into Tunisian exile, where it was thought Mr. Arafat would too distant to cause trouble for the Jewish state. That was before the Oslo Accords brought Mr. Arafat to the territories.

Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s hawkish defense minister, is expected Sept. 16 in Washington, where he will confer with members of the Bush administration on a possible repeat of Mr. Sharon’s actions. Mr. Mofaz’s position regarding Mr. Arafat is public knowledge — he favors exile. During the three-day Washington visit, the Israeli defense minister is to meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney. You can be sure they will discuss “Arafat being a problem,” Israeli Embassy spokesman Mark Regev told UPI.

The counterargument that the moderates — mainly Mr. Powell — will present, is that expelling Mr. Arafat from the Palestinian Authority will infuriate the Palestinian “street” and ignite tempers in the rest of the Arab and Islamic world, already peeved at the United States over its invasion of Iraq. This would risk setting a match to the Middle East powder keg, a sure way to torch the “road map.”

Claude Salhani is international editor for United Press International.

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