Arafat's Office Brawl Signals Political Crisis

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Implying that Yasser Arafat is chicken can get you slapped — at least if you're one of his subordinates. Tuesday's altercation between the Palestinian leader and his West Bank security chief is the latest sign of a crisis in the Palestinian Authority (PA), as aides press Arafat to make a clear commitment to a political direction, and take the consequences.

Incensed by the escape from a PA prison in Hebron of 17 Hamas and Islamic Jihad detainees the previous day, Arafat reportedly lost his temper during a meeting in his Ramallah office, slapping his security chief Jibril Rajoub. More colorful accounts even had Arafat drawing a gun, prompting both men's bodyguards to do the same. PA insiders dispute reports that Arafat pulled out a firearm, but confirmed that the aging Palestinian leader had indeed slapped Rajoub. PA leaders were hard at work Thursday reconciling the two men.

The immediate speculation was that Arafat's anger was partly due to a growing rivalry with his security chief, a man many Israelis view as a potential alternative to Arafat. But the quarrel that reportedly preceded the "slap heard around the world" was not over who should lead the Palestinians, but how they should be led.

Arafat was understandably livid that Rajoub's men failed to stand up to a crowd that had stormed the Hebron prison seeking the release of Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners. After all, he faces unrelenting pressure from Israel and the U.S. to do more to crack down on terrorism, and pays a political price for any perceived failure. Further, he believes the situation is deteriorating because of what he sees as negligence on the part of his security apparatus. Three months ago, Arafat reportedly unleashed a similar (though not physical) tirade against his Gaza security chief, Mohammed Dahlan.

The security chiefs have a complaint of their own. They are put in an impossible position, they argue, because while Arafat makes no bones about his wishes behind closed doors, he has refrained from publicly issuing decrees ordering the arrest of Hamas and Islamic Jihad leaders or the disarming of Fatah militias. And in the absence of unambiguous public pronouncements by the chairman of the PA, Dahlan and Rajoub say it is difficult to sustain a crackdown. But Arafat remains reluctant to risk the ire of a substantial portion of Palestinian public opinion by openly declaring war on many of the forces that have been at the heart of the current intifada.

Ironically, Rajoub seemed to have learned from his boss, telling the media on Wednesday that there had been no quarrel and that to challenge Arafat "at a time when Israeli tanks are 70 meters from his office would be the height of treachery." Nonetheless, insider accounts suggest that Rajoub was essentially urging Arafat to provide public political backing for the orders he gives in private, making clear to the Palestinian rank-and-file where their leader stands. But Arafat is habitually inclined to ambiguity, which has allowed him room for the maneuvering that has been the hallmark of his more than three decades as an often improbable political survivor. And until that changes, Rajoub may just have to take his licks.