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Palestinian squabble could delay statehood plan

Associated Press

JERUSALEM – Yasser Arafat and his prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, clung to their positions Tuesday in a bitter dispute over whom to name security chief, raising the possibility that Abbas will fail to form a Cabinet and resign.

Abbas’ resignation could cause considerable delays in unveiling a U.S.-backed peace plan, a “road map” to full Palestinian statehood within three years.

Abbas must present a list of ministers to Arafat by midnight Wednesday, and the Palestinian parliament would then have a week to vote on the new Cabinet.

The duel is closely watched by international mediators, who have been urging Arafat not to stand in Abbas’ way. Arab, European and U.S. officials have been calling Arafat in recent days to deliver the message.

It remains unclear whether the dispute between Arafat and Abbas is a narrow one, over Cabinet appointments, or a wider struggle over how much authority Arafat – for decades the sole leader of the Palestinians – is willing to relinquish to Abbas.

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

Dahlan has said he is confident he can lead a crackdown on Palestinian militias, and enjoys Israeli and U.S. support.

Arafat does not want the independent-minded Dahlan in the Cabinet, and prefers a confidant, Hani al-Hassan, as security chief. 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.

Hassan Khreisheh, a Palestinian legislator, said Tuesday that Arafat is trying to sabotage Abbas’ Cabinet list because he is unwilling to give up power. “He (Arafat) fears he will not be the strongman in the coming phase,” said Khreisheh.

Lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said the wrangling showed Arafat is having a hard time letting go of power, but she also criticized Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, for having made some Cabinet appointments based on loyalty, rather than merit.

“We had hoped that this would be a qualitative leadership change,” she said, adding that instead both men played by the old rules of personal allegiances.

The ruling Fatah party supports Arafat in the showdown, with many Fatah officials complaining that Dahlan is corrupt and inexperienced. Fatah controls a majority in the 88-member parliament, and without its support, Abbas will not win approval for his Cabinet.

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.

Arafat and Abbas have not spoken since a stormy meeting Saturday, and no meetings were scheduled Tuesday. There were no signs that either was ready to compromise. Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia and al-Hassan, both mentioned as possible candidates for prime minister, met with Arafat on Tuesday at his West Bank headquarters in the town of Ramallah.

Palestinian officials initially said parliament would have to hold a vote on a new Cabinet by Wednesday. However, legislators have since said that Abbas has more time. He needs to present a Cabinet list to Arafat by Wednesday, and a parliament vote would have to be held within a week after that, said Abdel Salah Abu Karim, head of parliament’s law committee.

Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, discussed the wrangling over the Palestinian Cabinet with Secretary of State Colin Powell in a phone call, according to Jonathan Peled, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.

Shalom told Powell that “as long as Arafat continues to be an obstacle, it will be very difficult to make progress on the road map,” Peled said.