Abbas Quits in Blow to Mideast Peace Plan


By John Ward Anderson and Molly Moore

Washington Post
September 6, 2003

Abbas said he regretted the failure of his government, but blamed the United States and Israel for not fulfilling their obligations in the peace process.

Mahmoud Abbas, the appointed prime minister of the Palestinian Authority considered by the United States and Israel as crucial partner for creating a new era of peace in the Middle East, submitted his resignation today after an embattled four-month tenure. Abbas told Palestinian legislators in a closed session today that he was quitting because of continuing clashes with Yasser Arafat, the elected leader of the Palestinian Authority, and the failure of the United States and Israel to back his fragile government with substantive efforts to move the peace process forward, according to lawmakers present at the meeting.

The decision by Abbas to leave the position that President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon hoped would sideline Arafat will make a resurrection of the U.S.-backed peace process, called the "road map," even more difficult after its collapse under the pressure of renewed bloodshed on both sides in recent weeks. "Things could deteriorate at every level unless there's an initiative to salvage the Palestinian internal system," said Ziad Abu Amr, a cabinet member in Abbas's government. "The Palestinian political system is in crisis." Abu Amr said the mood in the legislative chambers as Abbas made a "very personal" speech was one of "sadness and frustration."

According to Abu Amr and other legislators, Abbas said he regretted the failure of his government, but blamed the United States and Israel for not fulfilling their obligations in the peace process. He said Israel did little to improve the daily living conditions of Palestinians by lifting roadblocks and checkpoints and made no serious efforts to dismantle outposts and small settlements as demanded by the road map. He blamed the United States for not exerting enough pressure on Israel to meet those obligations. Israeli and U.S. officials have criticized Abbas for failing to order his security forces to crack down on militant groups and their operations.

News services reported this afternoon that Arafat accepted the resignation. Abu Amr said ealrier in the day that Arafat had scheduled a meeting tonight to discuss a potential caretaker government. Abu Amr said it was possible Arafat could rename Abbas as the prime minister, but he added that Abbas would be unlikely to accept any such proposal without dramatic changes in the structure of the government and the relationship between Arafat and the appointed prime minister.

The announcement by Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, came after several tumultuous days of confrontation with Arafat over control of Palestinian security forces and a call by Palestinian legislators on Thursday for a vote of no confidence in the government after a speech in which Abbas told them to strengthen his position "or take it back." As Abbas entered the legislative chambers Thursday, protesters roughed up the visibly-shaken prime minister, screaming that he was guilty of treason, and spray painted the front of building with signs that said, "Down with Abu Mazen's government." "The things of the past few days left a scar on Abu Mazen," said Kadoura Fares, a legislator who had been instrumental in effort to patch disagreements between Arafat and Abbas in the last few days. "Abu Mazen is not built to take such a thing."

Abbas, who has never held elective office and has spent most of his career as a behind-the-scenes bureaucrat and peace negotiator, had virtually no public among a Palestinian public that barely knew him before his appointment. Because he was supported so vocally by U.S. and Israeli leaders, many Palestinians considered him a puppet of outside governments rather than a representative of the wishes of the Palestinian people. Both Israel and the United States refuse to deal with Arafat, saying he is tainted by terrorism. Both governments have complained that Abbas is not able to effectively crackdown on Palestinian terrorism because Arafat is blocking him.

Other officials said that while security issues were the flash point, the real problem was a continuing clash between the old guard and the new reformers, represented by Arafat and Abbas respectively, and a governing system that is vague on how power should be divided between the two. When the Palestinian legislature bowed to Israeli and U.S. pressure and created the post of prime minister to try to diminish Arafat's power, the legislature set the stage for continuing conflict by leaving substantial authority in Arafat's hands. From the day he was confirmed, April 29, analysts said that Abbas' term would be marked by turmoil and tension as he struggled to define and empower his post, and Arafat, who is the elected president of the Palestinian Authority, fought to retain his influence.

The more the United States and Israel tried to support Abbas and undercut Arafat, the weaker Abbas became and the more Arafat's stature grew among Palestinians, according to several Palestinian officials. In the end, analysts say, Arafat has the upper hand because he was elected by the Palestinian people, while Abbas was appointed. A recent public opinion survey put the prime minister's popularity at 1.8 percent.

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