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April 26, 2003

Defanging of Arafat Begins
The end of Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat's autocratic reign has begun. The 74-year-old leader is not crippled, but pressure from the United States, Europe and Egypt forced him to blink in the 10-day showdown with Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas, who was bucking Arafat's resistance to appointing reformers to the new Cabinet — particularly an Arafat critic who is likely to crack down on suicide bombers.

Sadly, this does not mark a sea change for the Middle East. Arafat still has considerable control over the security forces and support among the population. Many Palestinians will see Abbas as the choice of Israel and the United States, and the moderate has done little to create his own following. Still, the agreement will increase pressure on the Palestinian Authority to stop terrorism and increase the Bush administration's determination to move ahead with its peace initiative "road map."

The standoff between Arafat and Abbas centered on whether Abbas would retain his position as head of the Interior Ministry as well as be prime minister and whether he would be able to install Arafat critic Mohammed Dahlan as head of security. Dahlan, a moderate, previously acted to suppress militants as security chief in the Gaza Strip.

Having lost the stare-down, Arafat now has even more to lose: If Dahlan gets tough on Palestinian radicals, including Hamas-sponsored suicide bombers, and if Abbas is able to negotiate an agreement with the Israelis, Arafat will be deprived of the glory of creating an official Palestinian state.

The peace plan being promoted by the U.S., United Nations, European Union and Russia envisions an independent Palestinian state in three years. Already Israeli officials and Washington hawks are insisting that the plan be revised. Israel is loath to promise to dismantle any settlements in exchange for the end to Palestinian violence that is called for in the plan. But President Bush has rightly resisted changing the road map. This steadfastness will strengthen Secretary of State Colin L. Powell's hand in May when he visits Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria to push the plan.

Neither Powell's visit nor Abbas' deal with Arafat will bring peace overnight. But however untidy, Abbas' victory has eroded Arafat's ability to obstruct the peace process.