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THE WORLD

Abbas Says He Might Quit as Prime Minister

The Arafat rival is expected to defend his policies today before a closed session of the Palestinian parliament.

September 06, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, caught up in a bitter power struggle with Yasser Arafat, told several top associates late Friday that he was considering quitting -- a threat he has made on several previous occasions without carrying it out.

Two senior colleagues of the beleaguered 68-year-old prime minister said he had raised the possibility of stepping aside as soon as today, but they added that aides and mediators were continuing to work to dissuade him.

The Palestinian legislature, which Thursday heard an appeal from Abbas to either support him or fire him, was scheduled to meet in closed session today in the West Bank city of Ramallah. At that session, Abbas was expected to defend his administration's policies toward Israel and Palestinian militant groups.

If Abbas were to step down now, it would represent another grave blow to the faltering U.S.-backed peace initiative. The United States and Israel have said the peace plan could not move forward if governmental control reverted to Arafat, the Palestinian Authority president.

The Bush administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon have indicated that they would continue to refuse to deal with Arafat and would also freeze out any handpicked Arafat loyalist who might succeed Abbas.

Abbas, appointed by Arafat under intense international pressure, took up his duties April 30. The power struggle between the two dates back to the early days of Abbas' tenure but has intensified in recent weeks, in tandem with the collapse of a cease-fire declared by Palestinian militant groups and renewed violence reminiscent of earlier periods of the 35-month-old intifada, or uprising.

Resignation threats from Abbas have become something of a fixture on the Palestinian political scene, but one official close to the prime minister, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Abbas felt that his position had deteriorated to the point where trying to go on was untenable.

Arafat and Abbas have quarreled about a wide range of issues, but the latest dispute -- over control of security forces -- has proven intractable. Without this muscle, Abbas and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, are essentially helpless to act against Palestinian militant groups, something that Israel demands but that Abbas has been reluctant to attempt.

The dismantling of Palestinian terrorist infrastructure is specifically mandated by the peace plan, known as the "road map." After Hamas killed 21 people Aug. 19 in a Jerusalem bus bombing, Sharon's government made it clear that without sweeping action against the militants, further progress on the peace plan was impossible.

Dahlan and Abbas have since taken limited steps against the militants, but Israel has launched its own hard offensive, assassinating more than a dozen Hamas operatives and leaders in the Gaza Strip over the last three weeks and sending troops and tanks to hunt down terrorist suspects in the West Bank.

Abbas and Arafat are associates of long standing in the Palestine Liberation Organization, and mediators who know both well have been shuttling between the two camps, trying to find a way to paper over their differences. After Thursday's parliamentary session, these backroom discussions resumed with the aim of staving off an escalation of their feud, including a possible no-confidence vote by lawmakers next week.

Abbas never embraced armed confrontation as Arafat did. Abbas was among the early proponents of seeking peace with Israel and was among the few prominent Palestinians to suggest, months ago, that the current uprising was only bringing suffering on the Palestinians.

Arafat has rarely hesitated to use displays of force, however theatrical, to drive home a point. While Abbas was addressing parliament on Thursday, about 10 masked men -- members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a violent offshoot of Arafat's Fatah movement -- smashed glass-brick windows and pounded on the front doors of the building.

Several senior Palestinian officials said privately that it was highly unlikely such a display could take place without at least the tacit approval of Arafat.

Abbas, who is known to have little taste for confrontation, looked almost panicky as bodyguards hustled him through a crowd of chanting demonstrators and into the building.

Abbas can use a resignation threat as leverage against Arafat because the Palestinian Authority president would run a serious personal risk if he were perceived as having brought about the collapse of Abbas' government.

Senior Israeli officials, including Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz and Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have for months advocated Arafat's expulsion -- a measure that Sharon has always blocked -- or even a military strike against his Ramallah compound. After the Aug. 19 bombing, Israel sent tanks to the outskirts of Ramallah in what officials later described as a pointed warning.

From Arafat's point of view, the preferable course would be to keep Abbas in office -- but hamstrung.

Israeli analysts have been predicting that if there is a resumption of serious attacks against Israeli civilians, Sharon may feel compelled to act against Arafat, whatever the international repercussions.

"If there is another major terror attack, I think it is very likely he would be expelled -- that after half an hour he would find himself in Lebanon or some such place," said Mordechai Kedar, a political analyst at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.

Although relations between Abbas and Arafat have deteriorated to the point where they are not on speaking terms, the prime minister has been careful to avoid overt public criticism of the much more popular Arafat. In Thursday's speech, he made a point of blaming Israel, not Arafat, for the breakdown of the peace plan.

Special correspondent Maher Abukhater in Ramallah contributed to this report.

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