Crunch Time for Abbas

Fri Sep. 5, 2003 3:00 AM EDT


Tensions are running high between Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, and Yasser Arafat, and it's far from clear who will remain in power. Clearly fed up, Abbas told the Palestinian Legislative Council in Ramallah on Thursday, in effect, to back him or sack him

Abbas defended his first 100 days as prime minister and blasted Israel, telling parliament, "I don't believe there's anybody in the world that doesn't share my opinion that it is the Israeli side who takes the responsibility for where we are today."

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But privately Abbas must reserve some blame for the man who gave him his job. Arafat retains effective control over the Palestinian security services, so when the United States and Israel pressure Abbas to dismantle terrorist groups, and he fails, the p.m. winds up looking powerless, as the Financial Times notes. In his address to the Palestinian parliament, Abbas said he'd rather negotiate with the groups than go after them. "This government does not deal with the opposition groups with the policing mentality, but the mentality of dialogue," he said.

But Abbas doesn't have the power to crack down even if he wanted to. Nor, so far, has he worked up the nerve to confront Arafat. The Christian Science Monitor suggests this is because Abbas needs Arafat, who is much more popular with Palestinians. But, as the piece goes on to note, Arafat needs Abbas, too, because the the prime minister has much more credibility with Israel and the United States (though it's wearing thinner by the day).

On Saturday, the Palestinian parliament will re-convene for a confidence/no-confidence vote on Abbas' work -- so he could soon find himself among the swelling ranks of the Palestinian unemployed.

Things don't look good for Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen. Working out a resolution with Israel was was always going to be tough going, but now, with the American-inspired roadmap in tatters, he looks more and more irrelevant. Palestinian cabinet minister, Ghassan Khatib, spoke for a segment of the parliament:

"If there is no progress toward ending the occupation, what is the point in the Palestinians implementing the road map? And if there's no road map, there's no point in Abu Mazen's government."
And the Bush administration isn't helping. Rather than offer constructive help, the U.S. continues to pressure the P.A. to get a handle on the security situation, putting Abbas in an increasingly difficult position. Thus, the president:
"I don't want to sugarcoat this...The main problem now is terrorism and violence and the Palestinian Authority needs to take hold of that problem if we are to move forward... There is really no alternative to the road map. Beyond the road map is the cliff."
But as Chris McGeal of the Guardian reports, most Palestinians have long been aware of the cliff they're living on. Fares Qa dura, a Palestinian legislator explained the Bush administration's shaky grasp of Palestinian politics has got them into the current mess.
"Instead of calling Abu Mazen a good man, the Americans should get the roadblocks removed. Then they could call him a bad man, and at least he would be popular [with the Palestinian public]...They have not put any pressure on the Israelis to change the policy on the ground to improve daily life for the Palestinians. The U.S. hasn't realized how important this is to Abu Mazen. We have totally dealt positively with American demands but they haven't dealt with the everyday needs of the Palestinian people. The Americans are worried about the long term but they are not aware of how to lay the foundation for what Bush envisions for years from now."
If the Palestinian parliament votes to dump Abbas on Saturday, hopes for peace will go with him. The Sharon government has refused to have anything to do with a Palestinian government in which Arafat plays a role. Life will grow bloodier as the Israeli army re-enters Palestinian towns. The notion of Israeli security or Palestinian sovereignty appears as far away as ever.

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