Arafat Puts a Roadblock on the Road Map

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Palestinian appointed Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at the Parliament in Gaza City

Nobody wants Yasser Arafat in charge of Palestinian affairs: Not Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has been trying to sideline his old enemy since taking office three years ago; not the Bush administration, which made clear last summer that sidelining Arafat is an essential condition for renewing the peace process; and not even many Palestinian leaders from his own Fatah faction, who have spent much of the past year working to break the aging Arafat's personal monopoly on power. And yet, as Wednesday's deadline approaches for Palestinian prime minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas (aka Abu Mazen) to present his cabinet for ratification by Arafat and the Palestinian legislature, the beleaguered PLO chairman appears once again to be in control.

After weeks of fierce infighting, Arafat has refused to endorse the cabinet picked by Abu Mazen — and failure to reach agreement by deadline will mean that the prime minister-designate strongly backed by the main sponsors of the road map for Israeli-Palestinian peace (the U.S. and Europe) will step aside, and Arafat will pick a new prime minister. With the Bush administration having made the swearing-in of Abu Mazen a precondition for releasing the long-awaited road map to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, his defeat by Arafat would be a disaster for U.S. and British plans to address the conflict with renewed energy. That's why Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair as well as State Department and European diplomats made frantic calls to Arafat Tuesday warning that endorsing Abu Mazen's cabinet is the only acceptable way forward.

Abu Mazen has irked Arafat by ignoring his longtime loyalists, preferring younger leaders untainted by corruption and, in some key cases, well regarded in Israel and Washington. In fact, Abu Mazen kept only one member of Arafat's previous cabinet, and that was finance minister Salam Fayyad — whom Arafat had appointed under pressure from the West to ensure transparency in budgetary affairs.

A central dispute concerns Mohammed Dahlan, the longtime Gaza security chief picked by Abu Mazen to be the new interior minister and therefore responsible for security issues. Dahlan has shown himself capable of building a credible security organization outside of Arafat's control, and his independence at the head of a consolidated Palestinian security service — as well as his good standing in Washington — make Dahlan a threatening figure to the PLO chairman. Palestinian reformists and Western backers of the road map want to limit Arafat's personal power and create a more collective leadership among the Palestinians. But Arafat is not letting go: He insists on maintaining power of veto over all of Abu Mazen's decisions, which the prime minister-designate has refused to grant.

The reason Arafat may yet prevail against these odds, however, may have less to do with any enthusiasm among Palestinian legislators for his autocratic rule than with some of the key political issues that divide Arafat from his challenger. Abu Mazen has made clear that he intends to put Palestinian security services to work disarming the various unofficial militias, such as the Fatah-based Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, and also to clamp down on the militant Islamist groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Arafat opposes the idea of confronting the militants, for fear that this could lead to a Palestinian civil war. But Abu Mazen has long maintained that the armed intifada is a dead end for the Palestinians, and that progress towards statehood requires a forceful change of course.

Unfortunately for Abu Mazen, his policy of suppressing militant groups and relying exclusively on the diplomatic route to pressure Israel into withdrawing from the West Bank and Gaza remains a tough sell even to many Palestinians willing to jettison Arafat. And while his longtime efforts as a peacemaker — he famously co-authored a plan for sharing Jerusalem with former Israeli justice minister Yossi Beilin — have earned Abu Mazen considerable respect in foreign capitals, he has no mass support base of his own among Palestinians. The latest opinion survey published by a respected Palestinian polling organization showed that while some 60 percent of Palestinians supported the move to tap Abu Mazen as prime minister, only 3 percent identified Abu Mazen as their Palestinian leader of choice — compared with 35 percent for Arafat, 20 percent for imprisoned intifada leader Marwan Barghouti and 15 percent for Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Arafat had hoped that Abu Mazen's domestic political weakness would make him reliant on the man who appointed him; instead Abu Mazen has sought to build a coalition of Palestinian groups to back his program. But as of Tuesday, it appeared that he hadn't mustered sufficient support to force Arafat to accept the inevitable.

More importantly, perhaps, the infighting among the Palestinians is a reminder of the depths of the challenges that lie ahead. When the road map is eventually published, Israelis and Palestinians will be forced to contend with the question of its destination. And while Abu Mazen may oppose the violent strategy of the intifada, he is not prepared to accept a final settlement in which the Palestinians get less than what Israel offered at the doomed Taba talks in January of 2001 — Palestinian statehood in the West Bank and Gaza based on Israeli withdrawal to a modified version of its 1967 borders, and a mechanism for sharing Jerusalem. In that position he's likely to be supported by most of the Palestinian legislature and by the sponsors of the road map (although the Bush administration will likely be internally divided over just where Israeli-Palestinian borders should be drawn). But Ariel Sharon was not party to the Taba talks (they were conducted by the Barak government shortly before his election), and had vociferously rejected even Barak's more limited offer at Camp David the previous summer. Although Sharon has spoken recently of the need for "painful concessions" to achieve peace, few Israeli analysts believe he is willing to go nearly as far as his predecessor. Which suggests that even once the Arafat roadblock is cleared, publication of the road map may be only the beginning of a long and painful journey whose duration is far greater than the three years envisaged by its authors.