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Abbas-Arafat Struggle Could Derail Peace Plan (LA TIMES) By Laura King RAMALLAH, West Bank 07/10/03) Source: http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/world/la-fg-mideast10jul10003421,1,5012995.story
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The Palestinian Authority leader sat silent, letting loyal associates heap insults on Mahmoud Abbas, the man he was forced to install nearly four months ago as prime minister — the first time in decades that Arafat has engaged in anything remotely resembling power-sharing.
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The meeting this week of the Palestinians´ main policymaking body, which by all accounts left Abbas shaken and angry, marked Arafat´s sharpest warning yet to his new partner — and, implicitly, to Abbas´ negotiating partners, Israel and the United States — that it would be a mistake to count him out just yet.
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How the two men come to grips with each other may well determine the success of the U.S.-backed peace plan. In the difficult, highly fraught relationship of Abbas and Arafat, some analysts see a reflection of Palestinian ambivalence over whether to seek a negotiated peace with Israel or to carry on a bloody struggle for statehood.
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"It brings into relief the basic struggle between the pragmatist and the revolutionary," said Hillel Frisch of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies in Israel. "It´s a question of hoping that the Palestinian Authority will turn into a Palestinian state in stipulated areas, or that the intifada will go on and on."
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Although a founding member of Arafat´s Fatah faction and an activist of years´ standing in the Palestine Liberation Organization, the cerebral, soft-spoken Abbas is the polar opposite of Arafat, the onetime guerrilla chieftain who retains a penchant for dramatic gestures, rumpled military-style fatigues and wearing a pistol tucked in his belt.
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"Abbas represents a different caliber and personality of leader altogether," said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, director of a Jerusalem-based Palestinian think tank. "He never carried a gun in his life. He´s a technocrat, an administrator with a specific mission."
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It is too soon to know whether Abbas will amass enough authority to succeed in the mission of negotiating peace. Arafat may be unable to regain the near-absolute power he once wielded in the Palestinian territories, but the question now is whether he has chosen to devote his energies to another role — that of spoiler of the peace plan, known as the "road map." Israeli officials, in a view endorsed by the Bush administration, insist that Arafat, who turns 75 next month, is a spent force, an irrelevancy. But veteran Palestinian political figures, diplomats and analysts are not so certain.
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"Arafat is not going to relinquish his power and standing and authority," Hanan Ashrawi, a longtime Palestinian lawmaker who has clashed with Arafat in the past, said flatly.
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Menachem Klein, a political scientist at Tel Aviv´s Bar-Ilan University, noted that in the Arab world, it is extremely rare for leaders to voluntarily give up power.
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"I think they underestimated the difficulty of sidelining Arafat," Klein said.
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Without question, Israel has succeeded in isolating him physically. Arafat has not left his shell-battered West Bank compound, known as the muqataa, for more than a year.
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He can no longer flit at will to world capitals, or make the kind of tumultuous public appearances that in the past always appeared to energize him. To a great extent, he is diplomatically cut off as well. No American or Israeli envoy has had direct dealings with Arafat for months, although Europeans and the representatives of some international organizations continue to trek to Ramallah to see him.
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Despite all this, however, Arafat retains an unchallenged prestige among ordinary Palestinians, who revere him as a founding father. In terms of popular support, his only real rivals are militant groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, with Abbas a distant third.
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Arafat´s power is based on more than just his popularity with ordinary Palestinians. He has a loyal following among the old guard — helped along, analysts say, by access to huge amounts of cash he can use to dispense patronage.
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The appointment of Abbas, largely engineered by the United States, was meant to dilute Arafat´s power and encourage Palestinians to end the violent uprising that has dragged on for the last 33 months.
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Mindful of Arafat´s power, Abbas has been careful not to challenge him head-on. In public, he is invariably deferential to Arafat, often reminding others that he serves at the Palestinian Authority president´s pleasure.
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"You have the power to dismiss me," he said meekly at one brief appearance with Arafat last month. "Oh, but I´m not dismissing you!" Arafat replied, laughing and clearly pleased.
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Arafat has always been credited with a talent for reading Palestinian sentiment and riding it like a current — something he has done ably in recent weeks.
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He was quick to perceive widespread anger at Abbas after the prime minister´s conciliatory speech at the June 4 peace summit in Aqaba, Jordan, with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush. Abbas was harshly criticized by Palestinians across the political spectrum for failing to assert the Palestinians´ claim to Jerusalem as their capital, or demand the release of Palestinian prisoners. Aides defend Abbas´ position, saying his strategy is to work for long- term solutions.
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Since the summit, Arafat has periodically weighed in with public statements that appeared calculated to stoke that public discontent. He derided Sharon´s dismantling of illegal outposts of Jewish settlements as a piece of theater. He called Israeli troop pullbacks from the Gaza Strip and the West Bank town of Bethlehem "cosmetic."
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The Americans and Israelis have a tremendous stake in Abbas´ success — but the trouble is that whenever they try to show their support, they end up making things more difficult for him. As one Israeli columnist put it this week, they "embrace him until his bones crack."
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Sympathetic but patronizing comments by U.S. and Israeli officials about Abbas can backfire. For example, in a much-reported remark last month, Sharon told his Cabinet that Abbas needed time to consolidate his power, likening the Palestinian Authority prime minister to "a chick whose feathers haven´t grown in yet." A few days later, an Israeli newspaper cartoon depicted Sharon frowning at Abbas, drawn as a fledgling chick — with a full-sized, full-feathered Arafat contentedly beside him.
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A minor flap erupted this week when the respected Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted the U.S. ambassador, Daniel Kurtzer, as telling a group of rabbis and Jewish leaders that Abbas was a weak person who tended to run away from problems.
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The U.S. Embassy said he was misquoted, although two people present at the gathering said the tone of Kurtzer´s remarks was represented accurately. "What he did discuss was the pressure that Prime Minister Abbas is under," said a U.S. Embassy official. "As we have consistently stated, we stand behind Prime Minister Abbas."
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Abbas has no love of conflict and has sometimes distanced himself when a clash was in the offing. He spent an extended period abroad after disagreeing with Arafat in 1991 over the Palestinian leader´s outspoken support for Iraq´s Saddam Hussein.
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More recently, Abbas traveled to Jordan for nonemergency surgery — a cataract operation — at a critical point in the early days of the peace process. He left the Palestinian territories hours after a Hamas-staged bus bombing in Jerusalem on June 11 killed 17 Israelis, an attack that took place a day after Israel tried to kill a senior Hamas leader. Abbas was gone for several days, and during that time, Arafat stepped in and ran a series of important security talks among the Palestinian leadership.
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Even though Arafat has said he supports the peace plan, many believe that he sees it as a death knell to his own personal and political standing. A winding down of the fighting, and the prospect of a resolution to which he is not a party, appears difficult for him to accept. He reportedly refused to watch televised scenes of the Aqaba summit.
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"Seeing Mahmoud Abbas functioning successfully brings Arafat to realize this is the beginning of the end of his own personal era," said Abdul Hadi, the Palestinian political analyst.
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Abbas´ own motivations are difficult to judge, even for those who know him well.
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"He has no charisma, no leadership ego and no ambitions," Abdul Hadi said. "Yet he accepted this mission impossible."
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If Arafat and his loyalists continue to try to hobble Abbas in his negotiations, Israel could be left with few options.
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Prominent hard-line Israeli political figures such as Benjamin Netanyahu, the finance minister, and Shaul Mofaz, the defense minister, advocate expelling Arafat from the Palestinian territories. But Sharon and his advisors fear that Arafat could more effectively marshal opposition from outside.
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Israeli officials believe they have tried practically everything with Arafat — fighting him in the 1970s and 1980s, negotiating with him in the 1990s, fighting him again with the outbreak of the intifada in September 2000.
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The spark for this week´s angry showdown was the issue of Palestinian prisoners.
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Abbas threatened to quit as prime minister after a meeting of the Central Committee of the Fatah faction on Monday night turned into a free-for-all of furious accusations that he was not pushing hard enough to win a large-scale prisoner release — something that has been an unchanging demand of the Palestinians.
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Palestinians generally regard even those jailed for the most violent anti-Israeli acts as prisoners of war and heroes rather than criminals. (Copyright 2003 Los Angeles Times 07/10/03)
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