Abbas, Arafat at odds over new government

Prime minister's plan said to have too little, too much of old Palestinian guard

April 15, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

RAMALLAH, West Bank - The new Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, remained deadlocked yesterday with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat over Abbas' proposed ministers for a new government, as senior members of their Fatah movement tried to broker a compromise.

Abbas also came under fire from establishment Fatah figures who felt slighted in the new government, and from upstart reformers who felt that he had not sufficiently cleaned house.

Indeed, as Palestinian politicians picked apart the proposal yesterday, the raucousness of the debate illustrated the seemingly contradictory nature of Palestinian politics: the freedom people feel to speak up and criticize, and the pre-eminent power Arafat retains.

Confirmation of the new government is President Bush's stated condition for announcing a new peace plan here. Yesterday, Dov Weisglass, a senior aide to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, was in Washington seeking to amend that plan, referred to as a road map.

Senior Palestinian officials predicted that the government would be approved by the Palestinian parliament by Thursday. But some Palestinian politicians and experts feared that Abbas might resign - as he has threatened to do in previous fights - or that Arafat might fire him, as he is legally empowered to do.

Intisar al-Wazir, the widow of Abu Jihad, Arafat's former No. 2, complained that Abbas' list contained no women. That, rather than the fact that she had been stripped of her ministry, social welfare, was what troubled her, she said. Abbas has not yet named anyone to replace her. Abu Jihad was shot in Tunis in 1988, in an assassination attributed to Israeli commandos.

For his part, Muhammad Horani, a legislator who is part of a rebel faction of Fatah reformers, said he saw too many of Arafat's old guard on the list. "It's not the names that give us the promise of hope," he said.

Hasan Khraisheh, an independent legislator, criticized Abbas as favoring Israel's security interests over creating jobs and alleviating poverty.

Nabil Amr, a Palestinian legislator who fought for creation of the post of prime minister, called the dissension with Arafat "a serious problem." But he said he hoped that mediators would resolve it.

"The road map is the most important element now," he said, referring to the peace plan.

Arafat was said to be angry to see longtime allies stripped of some powers or dismissed altogether. Abbas is seeking to take for himself the portfolio of the interior ministry, which manages the security services, displacing Hani al-Hassan, a respected veteran of Fatah.

Abbas is a founder of Fatah, and he has worked with Arafat, and occasionally quarreled with him, for decades. He is a top Palestinian negotiator who has the respect of Israeli and U.S. officials, but he shuns publicity and has been known to retreat from confrontations.

For more than three weeks, he worked in secret to form his Cabinet. As his choices leaked out Sunday, some of his potential allies were offended he had not consulted them in advance.

Under the law, Abbas needs the approval only of parliament for his government. But he wants the endorsement of Fatah's central committee, apparently believing that it is a key to winning the faction's support in the legislature.

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