Down To The Wire
SEVEN hours before a midnight deadline, on April 23rd, Yasser Arafat and his prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas (also known as Abu Mazen) agreed a new Palestinian government. The next morning a Palestinian suicide bomber struck, killing one person at a railway station in Kafr Saba in northern Israel, thus demonstrating the most lethal kind of opposition the new order will face. Mr Abbas has vowed to end the bombings and other facets of the “armed intifada”.
Forming a government was hard enough. After a rancorous struggle, the two aged Palestinian leaders were eventually steered to shore by Omar Sulieman, Egypt’s intelligence chief. He persuaded Mr Arafat to accept a compromise he had spent two weeks resisting. Mr Abbas will be interior minister as well as prime minister, and the former security chief in Gaza, Muhammad Dahlan, will become minister for security affairs, responsible for policing in the Palestinian areas.
Mr Arafat had wanted to keep the former incumbent, Hani al-Hasan, in the job. He sees Mr Dahlan, once a favoured son, as a Brutus, conspiring with Israel and America to unseat him from within. But his persistence not only angered the Americans (who have long written him off) but also strained his relations with the European Union and Russia, which issued stiff warnings to approve Mr Abbas and his preferred government without delay.
Why did Mr Arafat make such a fuss? “Relevance,” says a long-time aide. “He knows that Israel and America believe that nothing can be done with him. He has just shown that nothing can move in the Palestinian leadership without him.” Not only that, but Mr Arafat also scored some domestic points. He rallied his Fatah movement behind him, exploiting the discontent many felt over Mr Abbas’s new government. It was widely seen as short on fresh talent and long on the prime minister’s cronies, even including some people accused of corruption. But all shades of Fatah expressed relief when the battle was over.
The new government is supposed to trigger publication of the so-called road map, the latest diplomatic plan for ending the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Under its initial commitments, the Palestinian Authority must act to curb violence. In parallel, Israel is under instructions to withdraw from Palestinian cities, and freeze its construction of Jewish settlements.
Unimpressed by the power play in Ramallah, Palestinians are waiting to see if any of this actually happens. So too are Mr Abbas and Mr Dahlan. Whatever the seriousness of their commitment to act against Hamas and the other radical militias, few Palestinians believe that they will be able to do so unless Israel relaxes, and ultimately ends, the occupation.