Arafat's choice

April 22, 2003

YASSER ARAFAT and the man he chose to be the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, are at loggerheads over a new cabinet, and have given themselves until tomorrow to work out a deal. If they fail, it will be a serious setback to the recently renewed hopes of achieving a peace pact with Israel -- and it will be Mr. Arafat who takes the blame.

The sticking point has to do with the selection of a security chief, but more broadly the conflict between the two men is a generational one. Mr. Arafat refuses to concede that he must become a figurehead president; Mr. Abbas says he won't consider taking the prime minister's job if he is seen as Mr. Arafat's puppet.

Mr. Arafat has one argument in his favor: A recent poll shows that Mr. Abbas is supported as leader by about 3 percent of Palestinians (compared to 35 percent for Mr. Arafat).

But there are counterarguments that outweigh even this remarkable showing of unpopularity (or unfamiliarity). The same poll, for instance, shows a clear majority of Palestinians in favor of a mutual cessation of violence. Mr. Abbas, who has argued that the intifada harms the Palestinians' own interests, stands the best chance of any Palestinian leader of achieving that.

Some of those close to Mr. Arafat view Mr. Abbas with suspicion as the favorite pick of Israel and the United States, but in fact his support abroad is widespread -- and that is important. The European Union has reportedly told Mr. Arafat that Mr. Abbas is the only acceptable candidate. The German and Spanish governments have reinforced that point, as have King Abdullah of Jordan and President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt.

If Mr. Abbas and his cabinet are approved by the Palestinian Authority, the peace plan that has been drawn up by Washington, the European Union and Russia can be launched. It requires Israel to scale back settlements and it envisions the beginnings of a Palestinian state before the end of this year. More steps toward a lasting peace would follow. It puts the onus on both sides to stop the violence -- and it's worth noting that, even as Mr. Arafat was continuing to resist Mr. Abbas over the weekend, Israeli tanks raided Rafah in the Gaza Strip, killing six and wounding 48.

If, in the end, Mr. Abbas is thwarted by Mr. Arafat, it is quite clear that there is no one with any credibility in the Palestinian Authority to take his place -- and it is certain that there will be more raids like the one in Rafah, with more destruction, death and misery for the Palestinian people.

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