Friday, 5 September 2003

Abbas tells parliament: Back me or sack me

Palestinian prime minister talks tough to critics

Friday, September 5, 2003

Matthew Kalman, Chronicle Foreign Service

Ramallah, West Bank -- Embattled Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, locked in a power struggle with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and facing criticism over his failure to make good on promises of peace, delivered a veiled ultimatum to his disgruntled parliament Thursday: Support me or dismiss me.

"You either provide the resources of power and support those things, or you take it back," said Abbas, who was appointed to a shaky power-sharing position with Arafat after intense pressure from Washington and the European Union.

In an address marking the end of his first 100 days as premier, Abbas faced down his critics, but his hold on power appeared fragile.

Parliament scheduled a closed-door meeting for Saturday to discuss his speech and decide whether to move to a vote of confidence. Lawmakers said privately they hoped a compromise could avert such a showdown, which would throw U.S. plans for Middle East peace into disarray.

Abbas and Arafat have clashed repeatedly over the continuation of the armed struggle against Israel, the appointment of cabinet ministers, negotiations with Israel and, most recently, control of the security forces.

Abbas wants more control over the security forces in order to curb attacks against Israelis by Palestinian militants, but Arafat appears reluctant to cede any real power to his premier.

Even as Abbas made his way Thursday to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah, black-hooded members of Arafat's Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades ran amok outside, spray-painting insults against Abbas on the walls of the council building. Protesters carrying Arafat placards beat on a door to the building with a hatchet and clubs, chanting that they would defend their leader "with blood and fire." Minutes before, the demonstrators had been seen emerging from Arafat's office across town.

Abbas had hinted last week, when he called for a Legislative Council meeting, that he might resign if he did not receive more backing from parliament, and mediators from all sides worked frantically behind the scenes to avoid a public clash at Thursday's meeting.

Sensing a standoff, Israel issued a statement on Sunday saying it would "not negotiate with a new government formed under the instructions and influence of Arafat."

And Palestinian legislator Hatem Abdel Khader said several of his colleagues had received calls from U.S. and European officials advising them to support Abbas. "They told my colleagues this was advice, not an order, but we reject this outside interference in our Palestinian affairs," he said.

In his speech, Abbas only hinted at his conflict with Arafat. "Without a legitimate force in the hands of one authority . . . we will not advance one step on the political track," he said, in a reference to the U.S.-backed road map, which foresees Palestinian statehood by 2005.

But Arafat has outmaneuvered Abbas on several fronts. Earlier Thursday, Abbas' position as chief negotiator with Israel was undermined by the appointment of veteran Arafat loyalist Saeb Erekat to the cabinet with the title of minister for negotiations.

And under a plan to address the confrontation over security forces, Abbas' security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, is likely to be usurped by a Palestinian national security council that would give greater control to Arafat.

In public, Abbas remained supportive of Arafat, describing him Thursday as the "constitutional leader and historic leader" of the Palestinians. He called on Israel to lift its blockade of Arafat's headquarters, saying, "I believe that the siege of President Arafat is hurting our national dignity."

Legislators said that during his first 100 days in office, Abbas, who is known as Abu Mazen, had failed to deliver on many of his promises, but most put the blame on Israel.

"If Abu Mazen fails, he will fail because of the Israeli government," said former Palestinian cabinet minister Ziad Abu Zayyad. "He did a few positive things, but I'm worried because the Israelis did not give him enough time to do what he was planning to do and what he wanted to do."

Abbas portrayed a unilateral cease-fire, declared by the armed groups June 29, as his main achievement so far. He accused Israel of sabotaging the truce with "provocations," such as the arrests of militants, and of evading its obligations under the peace plan.

The truce was called off after an Aug. 19 suicide bombing in Jerusalem that killed 21 people and Israel's killing two days later of Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab.

The Bush administration and Israel have been pressing to sideline or even oust Arafat, but he remains popular -- perhaps more so since Washington has embraced Abbas.

"Everybody is still supporting Arafat, and (they) see Arafat as the first national leader of the Palestinian people," said Abu Zayyad. "Arafat will never be irrelevant, I can assure you."

Mark Heller of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University said Arafat had "undermined Abbas and sabotaged him in almost every conceivable way."

"Arafat is extremely jealous about his power and is unwilling to share it with anyone unless his back is up against a wall, which is, to a large extent, what has happened in the last few months as a result of foreign pressure, especially from the United States," Heller said.

Dr. Nabil Kukali, director of the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion, said he was confident Abbas and Arafat would patch up their differences.

"The Palestinians are tired of Israeli occupation, and they are not ready for conflict between their leaders," Kukali said. "The Palestinian leaders understand that, and they will solve their own problems."

But Professor Sari Nusseibeh, president of Al-Quds University and a former Arafat-appointed PLO representative in Jerusalem, warned that the continuing rivalry between the two men could prove fatal for both.

"A continued struggle between them not only will lead to the downfall of the one," said Nusseibeh. "I believe that the downfall of the one is going to lead to the downfall of the other.

"This is a lose-lose situation for both of them. Neither of them should think that this is a struggle in which only one of them will survive, and the Palestinian people will be left with a much worse position at the end of it."

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