New Boss With Abbas


Israeli officials are hailing the choice of Mahmoud Abbas as
Palestinian prime minister as a potential watershed in the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict, one that creates new hope for a cease-fire and a new political
process.

For months now, Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has been
speaking out against the militarization of the intifada against Israel, which
he calls a “strategic mistake” and a “dead end.”

But will he be able to impose his will on the various
Palestinian terrorist organizations to get them to stop the violence? And will
he be able to do anything significant against the will of Yasser Arafat, who
remains Palestinian Authority president and retains much of his executive
power?

On Monday, Palestinian legislators confirmed Saturday’s PLO
Central Committee decision to create the post. The council has yet to approve
the selection of Abbas to hold the post, though it’s considered likely. In any
case, the new prime minister’s duties may cause tension with Israel and the United
States.

According to reports, the new prime minister would control
the day-to-day running of Palestinian government, while Arafat would continue
to exercise control over negotiations with Israel and over the Palestinian
security services –precisely the levers that Arafat uses to prevent progress
toward peace and to promote terrorism, Israeli officials say.

The notion of appointing a prime minister alongside Arafat
came after President Bush called for extensive Palestinian reforms last June,
including the replacement of Arafat by a Palestinian leadership not tainted by
terrorism.

The idea was promoted by Israelis, members of the
international community and even many Palestinians — but Arafat, who saw it
clearly as a ploy to circumvent him, resisted it.

As long as Arafat remained in charge, Israeli government
officials argued, there would be no reforms, no cease-fire and no possibility
of peace talks. Appointing a strong prime minister with authority and real
power, they said, could change things.

The European Union and the United Nations, which continued
to maintain contacts with Arafat after Israel and the United States boycotted
him, bought into the prime minister idea late last year, and used their close
ties with Arafat to push it forward.

The key meeting came last month when the United Nations’
special Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, told Arafat bluntly that if he
appointed a prime minister he could still be the Palestinian Nelson Mandela,
the symbol of Palestinian freedom and independence — but that if he didn’t, he
might end up a Palestinian Haile Selassie, turned on and expelled by his own
people.

The tough talk did the trick. Emerging from the Feb. 14
meeting, Arafat announced his readiness to make the appointment.

At first, however, it seemed that Arafat merely intended to
go through the motions by appointing a puppet he could control, rather than a
strong-willed individual with real power. His first choice was a wealthy Nablus
businessman, Muniv al-Masri.

But senior officials in Arafat’s own Fatah movement
rebelled, passing a resolution to the effect that the prime minister would have
to be one of them. That opened the way for the appointment of Abbas, the most
senior Fatah official after Arafat.

Abbas, 67, was born in Safed in the Galilee. His family fled
during Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and he grew up in Syria. He has a
doctorate from Moscow University, with a thesis on supposed “contacts between
the Zionist movement and the Nazis.” According to the Washington-based Middle
East Media Research Institute, Abbas wrote that Zionist officials collaborated
with the Nazis to create a situation where the world would agree on the
necessity of a Jewish homeland. Abbas also sought to minimize the number of
Jews killed in the Holocaust, claiming that the Nazis killed “only a few
hundred thousand” Jews, not 6 million.

In recent years, Abbas has said that he made those
statements at a time when the PLO was at war with Israel, and would not say
such things now.

Abbas for many years headed the PLO’s Israel desk, and after
the 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid he was given responsibility for
the PLO’s negotiating strategy with Israel. He also is considered the main
Palestinian force behind secret negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo peace
accords, which Abbas co-signed with Israel’s then-foreign minister, Shimon
Peres.

Last September, Abbas’ criticism of the intifada seemed to
be coming to a head. With Arafat surrounded by Israeli tanks at his
headquarters in Ramallah, Fatah officials met at Abbas’ home a few hundred
yards away to demand reform. However, the protracted Israeli siege of the
headquarters led Palestinians to rally around their embattled leader,
alleviating pressure for reform.

Now, six months later, crucial questions remain: What powers
will the prime minister get, and what powers will the president retain? Who
will control the finances, who will head the armed forces and who will make the
final decisions if and when talks with Israel resume?

Arafat confidant Saeb Erekat maintains that “the prime
minister is there to help and assist President Arafat, not to replace him.”

Abbas supporters, on the other hand, say their man will have
the last word.

Officials at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee
said Abbas is not an Arafat puppet, but the question is still open how much
freedom Abbas will have to set policy and maneuver.

The appointment won’t be complete until Abbas and Arafat
agree on the composition of a new government. Abbas has made said he won’t
accept the position unless he is able to form the government he wants.

In any event, a power struggle between Arafat and Abbas
could lead to a new dynamic that could have a major impact on the future of
Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Israeli politicians on the right and the left have welcomed
the choice of Abbas. Senior Labor legislator Matan Vilnai hopes it will help
put an end to “the crazy Palestinian terror,” but said Israel must be careful
not to spoil the chance by taking tough military measures that could just as
easily be deferred.

“Abbas is not a moderate but a pragmatist,” said
Labor’s former justice minister, Yossi Beilin, who played a major role on the
Israeli side of the Oslo negotiations.

But as a pragmatist Abbas is someone Israel can deal with,
as long as there is someone on the Israeli side willing to make a fair offer,
Beilin said.

In 1995, Beilin and Abbas developed a peace plan that was
similar to the proposal made by President Clinton at Camp David in July 2000.

Without going into detail, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
describes Abbas’s appointment as “a positive move in the right direction.”

Beyond the powers Abbas gets, much depends on what policies
he pursues, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

“There are a few things he can do unconditionally, like
stopping terror and incitement,” Shalom said.

But that could prove a tall order, as the challenges Abbas
faces are immense: He will have to survive Arafat’s efforts to clip his wings;
he will have to establish international credibility the way P.A. Finance
Minister Salam Fayed has done; and he will have to find a way to stop violence
against Israel if a peace process is to proceed. That could mean taking on the
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject any suspension of violence against
Israel.

One of the reasons Fatah people pushed for reform of the
Palestinian Authority is because they sensed they were losing ground in the
Palestinian street to Hamas. How Abbas goes about restoring Fatah’s supremacy
could determine whether or not the intifada finally stops.

Some of Abbas’ supporters, former security chiefs like
Mohammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, may push for a showdown with Hamas. But
taking on the fundamentalists could be tantamount to Palestinian civil war.
That’s why Arafat always avoided it. Will Abu Mazen?

JTA correspondent Naomi Segal contributed to this report. Â