Time Running Out On Palestinian P.M.

Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas, is seen in his office in the West Bank town of Ramallah in this March 7, 2003 photo. Abbas stormed out of a meeting Saturday, April 19, 2003, with Yasser Arafat and top aides trying to meet a self-imposed deadline for a new Palestinian government, officials said.
Bucking growing international pressure Tuesday, Yasser Arafat faced off with his prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, over Cabinet appointments, despite the risk of scuttling a U.S.-backed plan for Palestinian statehood.

At the root of the turmoil is Arafat's refusal to share power with Abbas, after decades of unchallenged leadership, Palestinian legislators and commentators said.

Abbas, who enjoys the support of international Mideast mediators, has until Wednesday to present his Cabinet to Arafat. Without Arafat's blessing, Abbas is not likely to win approval for the Cabinet in parliament, where the ruling Fatah party, which is siding with Arafat in the current crisis, commands a solid majority.

A senior Palestinian official close to Arafat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there is little hope for a breakthrough and that he expects Abbas to step aside. Arafat is already considering Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia as a possible replacement for Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, the official said.

Palestinian officials in Ramallah told The Jerusalem Post that several Fatah leaders have asked Qurei, who is also known as Abu Ala, to take the premiership if Abbas fails to form a government.

It was not clear if Qurei would accept the offer.

The duel is being closely watched by world leaders. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Arafat on Tuesday and — according to a Palestinian official — delivered a stern warning that everything must be done to ensure that Abbas is installed as prime minister. Arab, European and U.S. officials also have called Arafat in recent days.

Blair and President Bush have said they would only unveil an international peace plan, the so-called "road map" to full Palestinian statehood within three years, once Abbas and his Cabinet are sworn in.

Abbas' resignation could scuttle international mediation efforts. It was not clear whether an alternate prime minister, even the pragmatic and moderate Qureia, would be accepted by the United States and Israel.

Arafat consulted with Cabinet ministers and senior Fatah members at his West Bank headquarters Tuesday. The meeting was stormy, with yelling heard in the background as a reporter spoke to one of the participants by phone.

Some of the officials then met separately with Abbas, but failed to broker a compromise. Arafat and Abbas have not spoken since Saturday.

Ostensibly, the disagreement is over Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief whom Abbas wants to name to a key security position.

Beyond that, there is a broader struggle over how much authority Arafat — for decades the sole leader of the Palestinians — is willing to relinquish.

"Arafat likes to see followers, not partners," said Abdel Sattar Qassam, a political science professor once jailed for dissent. "Arafat doesn't like anybody to share power with him."

Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat attributed the wrangling to "labor pains of the transition to a new era" of greater democracy.

Arafat does not want the independent-minded Dahlan in the Cabinet, and prefers a confidant, Hani al-Hassan, as security chief. Many Fatah officials also oppose Dahlan, saying he is corrupt and inexperienced.

Dahlan has said he is confident he can lead a crackdown on Palestinian militias, and enjoys Israeli and U.S. support. Al-Hassan has not confronted militant groups since being named interior minister last year, and has been unable to persuade them to halt attacks on Israel.

The Israeli daily Haaretz, citing Palestinian sources, reported Tuesday that Arafat is trying to undercut Abbas because of the prime minister's plan to disarm militias, including the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, linked to Fatah. The report could not be confirmed independently. Palestinian officials said that Abbas, while opposing attacks on Israelis, has not presented a detailed plan for disarming militias.