Arafat, Abbas agree on Cabinet

Palestinian leaders break impasse that threatened to derail U.S. peace plan

April 24, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JERUSALEM -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his designated prime minister agreed yesterday on a new Cabinet, breaking an impasse that had threatened to derail a U.S.-backed peace initiative.

An Egyptian envoy undertook a city version of shuttle diplomacy in a convoy of sport utility vehicles to end the power struggle between Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. The agreement was reached hours before a midnight deadline and after intense pressure from U.S. and European officials.

Abbas' Cabinet is subject to the approval of the Palestinian Legislative Council, which is to meet Sunday or Monday. A White House spokesman said yesterday that the "road map" for peace, which calls for concessions from Israelis and Palestinians, would not be revealed until the Cabinet is in place.

The Bush administration had made the naming of a strong prime minister a prerequisite for unveiling the road map, and U.S. officials had made it clear that any failures would be blamed on Arafat.

"This is a win-win result," Nabil Shaath, who is to be foreign minister in the new Cabinet, told reporters in Ramallah. "Nobody lost. This agreement will pave the way for the new Cabinet to start its hard work and come back to the peace process."

The dispute was ostensibly over who should head the Palestinian Authority's security services, Mohammed Dahlan, a former security chief and close associate of Abbas, or a person with ties to Arafat. But in a larger sense, the disagreement was over the future of the Palestinian uprising that began 30 months ago.

Abbas has spoken out against suicide bombings and other forms of violence. He wants to disarm the militant wing of Arafat's Fatah action, the Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, and to confront groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad without interference. Arafat has been reluctant to challenge the militias, even though Hamas represents a political threat.

Dahlan had served for years as the chief of preventive security in the Gaza Strip and was a close Arafat associate until the relationship fractured last year and Dahlan was fired, reportedly over his plan to disarm militant groups. In 1996, Dahlan ordered Palestinian police to jail members of Hamas when a series of suicide bombings threatened to upset an interim peace accord with Israel.

Arafat vehemently objected to Abbas' plan to name Dahlan interior minister, a senior posting that oversees security. Abbas agreed yesterday to serve as both prime minister and interior minister, and Dahlan is to become a Cabinet minister overseeing the security portfolio.

It is a subtle change that allowed Arafat to save face but accomplished what Abbas wanted. Arafat, who only reluctantly agreed to name a prime minister and relinquish his powers over finances, fought in his clas- sic style to the last possible minute to maintain his hold on the police forces.

Desperate not to be cast aside even as U.S., European and Arab officials agreed that new Palestinian leadership is essential to ending violence and restarting negotiations, it was important for the 73-year-old Arafat to demonstrate that it was he who allowed Abbas to form a new government.

So, days after Abbas stormed out of Arafat's office and threatened to resign and Arafat hung up on the European Union's Middle East envoy, Miguel Moratinos, there was Arafat yesterday behind his desk, smiling, holding hands with Abbas and patting him approvingly on the shoulder.

Abdul Jawad Saleh, a Palestinian legislator from Ramallah and an outspoken Arafat critic, complained yesterday that Abbas had caved in to pressure and that Arafat still holds enough power to thwart serious attempts at reform.

"We fought hard not to give Arafat the slightest right to revise a Cabinet put forward by the prime minister," Saleh said. "Mazen should have formulated his government and come right to us. Arafat had too much say. Of course, Arafat would fight every battle to the end to stop reforms, because he doesn't want to lose any of his privileges."

Arafat and Abbas are old friends who have often quarreled, but this time they needed each other's support. The United States had made the unveiling of its peace plan contingent on the approval of a strong prime minister. But Arafat remains popular, and Abbas needed Arafat's approval to have legitimacy in the eyes of the Palestinian people.

They both got what they wanted in the end, but it was not easy. A series of meetings that lasted all night with Arafat, Abbas and top aides over the past week ended in rancor, with yelling heard from behind Arafat's closed door and people storming out and not talking to one another for days.

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