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Abbas Issues an Ultimatum to Parliament

Palestinian Authority prime minister tells lawmakers to either back him or relieve him of his job. Legislature is to meet again Saturday.

September 05, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank — On the steps of the Palestinian parliament here, masked militants with clubs and hatchets pounded the doors in protest. Inside the stifling chamber, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas delivered a sharp-edged message of his own, telling lawmakers Thursday to either lend him their genuine support or relieve him of his duties.

In a speech marking his first four months in office -- a tenure nearly as luckless as it has been thankless -- the 68-year-old Abbas, who is locked in a power struggle with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, placed much of the blame for the near-collapse of a U.S.-backed peace plan on Israel.

Nonetheless, he pledged to do what he could to revive the flagging "road map" to peace and to try to stem the spiraling violence that has gripped Israel and the Palestinian territories in recent weeks.

"I call on everyone to abandon this cycle of action and reaction," Abbas said. "I stress that this call, which has to be linked to the implementation of the road map, is an honest new attempt to restart the political process."

The prime minister, however, insisted that he would hew to a policy that both Israel and the Bush administration have branded a failure -- that of trying to deal with violent Palestinian groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad through negotiations, rather than launching an all-out crackdown against them.

"This government does not address the opposition groups with a mentality of policing, but the mentality of dialogue," Abbas said.

Even coming at a critical moment, it was hardly a bravura performance.

Clad in his usual sober dark suit, Abbas delivered the 45-minute speech in trademark fashion: his voice nearly devoid of inflection, his eyes glancing up only occasionally from the 18-page text. At the end, he was greeted with tepid applause.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has made it clear that it will not wait for Abbas to act against the militant groups -- although it insists that he must do so under terms of the peace plan. Since Aug. 21, Israel has assassinated a dozen Palestinian militants -- a concerted campaign that was triggered by Hamas' Aug. 19 bombing of a bus in Jerusalem, which killed the attacker and 21 other people.

The parliamentary session Thursday did not resolve Abbas' running feud with Arafat, which has grown in intensity over the last week as the two quarreled over key appointments and grappled for control of the Palestinian security apparatus. Officials close to both men say they are no longer on speaking terms.

Lawmakers voted to hold a closed session Saturday to question Abbas more closely about his government's goals and to hold another session Monday.

After that, the question of whether to have a no-confidence vote on Abbas' leadership, raised in advance of Thursday's meeting, could be revived, Palestinian officials said.

Although Arafat probably could engineer the passage of a no-confidence vote in the legislature, which is dominated by his supporters, the consensus was that such a step would be nearly as damaging to him as to Abbas -- perhaps more so.

Israel has said it would not deal with a Palestinian government over which Arafat held sway, and the ouster of Abbas would almost certainly fuel calls by Israeli politicians to expel the Palestinian Authority president or take other measures against him.

Abbas has threatened previously to resign if Arafat, who appointed him and could remove him at any time, did not give him a freer hand in making policy. This time, however, he placed the onus on lawmakers to remove him if they wished, rather than offering to step aside.

"This is a trust you put in me," he told them. "You either provide the resources of power and support to help me uphold this trust, or you take it back."

Even as he appealed to be allowed to do his job as he saw fit, Abbas sounded deeply aggrieved over the demands of his office.

"This is a very difficult mission, one that some call impossible," he said. "However, I accepted it because I saw genuine possibilities to improve our situation and open the gates to a political process that would lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state."

Although Abbas acknowledged the rift between him and Arafat -- calling it a "malfunction that needs to be addressed" -- he was careful to avoid any direct criticism of the longtime leader, whom most Palestinians consider a living symbol of their struggle for statehood. In his speech, the prime minister issued an almost formulaic call for the lifting of Israeli restrictions on the movements of Arafat, who has been confined to his half-wrecked compound in the West Bank city of Ramallah for more than 1 1/2 years.

Israeli officials, who have come to recognize that overt expressions of support for Abbas only make him more unpopular on the Palestinian street, were largely silent about his latest travails.

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