Global Policy Forum

Approaching Midnight


By Graham Usher

Al-Ahram Weekly
April 24-30, 2003

It began as a dispute between Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority's Prime Minister designate, Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu-Mazen) over who should minister the new Palestinian government. It has grown into the most serious political crisis assailing the Palestinian leadership since the Lebanon war, with much of the world siding with Abbas and much of his Fatah movement siding with Arafat.

In the short term it threatened to jeopardise the roadmap, the latest diplomatic plan for resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, since President George W Bush has predicated its release on the formation of a new Palestinian cabinet. But in the longer term it could augur an even greater schism.

And this is because the crisis is no longer about who will serve in government or even the division of powers between prime minister and president. It is about the future role and extent of Arafat's leadership. This at least is how Arafat sees it, say aides close to the Palestinian leader.

The crisis came to a head at a meeting of the Fatah Central Council (FCC) on Saturday. During the preceding week Abbas had bowed to certain of the "changes" Arafat and the FCC had demanded to his cabinet, proposed on 13 April. He re-promoted Palestine Liberation Organisation negotiators Yasser Abed-Rabbo and Saeb Erekat to be ministers with responsibility and brought back Arafat loyalists.

But Abbas was insistent that former Gaza Security Chief Mohamed Dahlan remain minister of state for internal affairs, responsible for the Palestinian Authority (PA) security forces. He did so partly at the behest of America, the European Union (EU) and Egypt and partly because he believes Dahlan is one of the few PA security men ready to take on Hamas and the Fatah militias, particularly on his home turf in Gaza.

Arafat insisted that the Interior Ministry stay with its incumbent, Hani Al- Hassan, or someone with his rank and experience. So did the FCC. Abbas refused to budge. "This is my cabinet and, if you don't like it, I'm quitting," he reportedly told his leader. Arafat then threw a flame on dry tinder, turning Abbas's challenge into an American-led conspiracy to unseat him. "We want a political plan, not a security plan," he said. "This is an American government." Abbas walked out.

Fatah leaders have worked to bridge the divide. They have been joined by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, President Hosni Mubarak, Egyptian Intelligence head Omar Suleiman, EU envoy Miguel Moratinos and sundry foreign ministers, all of whom have prevailed on Arafat that Abbas is the only Palestinian prime minister acceptable to them.

The Americans have also weighed in, with Secretary of State Colin Powell issuing thick hints that if the crisis is not resolved by the PA decreed deadline of Wednesday night, the roadmap will be delayed and perhaps buried. Fresh from Iraq, the Americans may feel the firm smack of government will bring Arafat to heel. Throughout Wednesday the Egyptian Intelligence head shuttled between the offices of Arafat and Abbas. At time of going to press Arafat announced that Dahlan will serve as state minister of internal affairs.

"Arafat is not afraid of Abu-Mazen personally," says an aide. "But he fears that unless he is freed from his captivity in Ramallah, Abu-Mazen, as prime minister, will become the new political address for the Palestinian leadership and Arafat will be ignored. Israel and the Americans are saying they can do nothing with Arafat. Arafat is fighting to show that nothing can move without him."

He has been helped in his struggle by the Palestinian government Abbas tried to form. At best it contained five or six ministers who could justifiably be called reformers. The rest were either security men, loyalists to Abbas's stream within Fatah or old/new ministers viewed as corrupt by the Palestinian parliament and Palestinian opinion generally.

Worse, Abbas ignored Arafat's fundamental condition that the interior minister comes from the ranks of the FCC. Instead Abbas gave it to himself and Dahlan, whom Arafat increasingly views as someone being groomed by the US and Israel to succeed him. "Abbas could not have made more mistakes if he tried," says a Palestinian political analyst.

Palestinians were not impressed, with polls showing that only 43 per cent believed Abbas would form a government that serves the Palestinian interest. Under these circumstances, most lawmakers believe it would be unwise for Abbas to alienate Arafat completely, but they also understand that, having accepted the roadmap, there can be no other prime minister who can present it.

"Most of us in Fatah support Arafat but simultaneously we want Abu- Mazen to remain prime minister. That is why they have to compromise," said one Fatah lawmaker on Wednesday. Other Palestinians believe the rift between the two leaders of the Palestinian movement is now too deep to be bridged. Despite Arafat's submission to international pressure at midnight hour, it is difficult to see how the future relations between the two men can be based on anything other than enmity, distrust and mutual suspicion, hardly a viable basis for steering the Palestinians through the pitfalls of the roadmap.




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