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April 24, 2003

Suicide Blast in Israeli Town Kills One

What does this piece in The New York Times tell us about the timing of the suicide bomber and the "new" PA appointments to move along the peace process
A Palestinian suicide bomber made an attack early today outside an Israeli train station, killing himself and another person and injuring at least 13 others, the police said. The bombing, the first fatal one in nearly a month, came just hours after Yasir Arafat and the Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, agreed on a compromise cabinet for the governing Palestinian Authority.

Their actions, under international pressure, broke a 10-day stalemate that has delayed the introduction of a new Middle East peace plan.

But initial reports from Palestinians were that the bomber came not from Hamas or the Islamic Jihad, but from an extremist group connected to the Fatah faction founded by Mr. Arafat and Mr. Abbas, emphasizing the obstacles to any new effort peace.

In their bargaining on Wednesday, Mr. Arafat forced Mr. Abbas to promote a few of his longtime allies. But he allowed the inclusion of Muhammad Dahlan, a security official favored by the United States and Israel as willing to crack down on Hamas and other militant Palestinian groups.
"This is the essence of power sharing, of partnership," said Nabil Shaath, who was designated as foreign minister, in announcing the agreement.

But it seemed a lopsided partnership, one that favored Mr. Arafat, at least for now.

Mr. Arafat scored more on style than substance. The compromise list of 24 ministers differed by only a few members from the one Mr. Abbas compiled 10 days ago, and it included some reformers he had previously left out, along with allies of Mr. Arafat he had tried to demote. Some associates of Mr. Abbas argued that he wound up looking tough, for having held on to Mr. Dahlan.

But by ostentatiously yielding to foreign demands, Mr. Arafat sharpened Mr. Abbas's image among Palestinians as the candidate of outside interests. Some reform-minded Palestinian officials said that Mr. Abbas had emerged from the fight looking so weak that they might have preferred no resolution, and Mr. Arafat naming a new prime minister instead.

"He was outmaneuvered easily," one of these officials said of Mr. Abbas, who is known as Abu Mazen.

By forcing Mr. Abbas to rework his cabinet list and stretching the fight out almost until the legal deadline of midnight tonight, Mr. Arafat also reminded the world, at whatever cost to Palestinian governance and hopes for peace, that he had not yet become irrelevant, as Israel declared him to be in December 2001.

"All that's proved in the last two or three weeks is that Yasir Arafat is simply there, and his presence is very much felt," said Maher Masri, the reform-minded minister of trade, economy and industry. [...]

Mr. Abbas composed his initial list in secrecy and remained secluded through the talks. He refused to speak to reporters as he left Wednesday, with Mr. Arafat maintaining his firm grip on his hand.

"You lost your chance for me to talk," was all Mr. Abbas said, as he gestured at a scrum of wildly shoving journalists and climbed into a black Mercedes sedan.

Later, Mr. Abbas released a statement in English, suggesting that the ministerial choices were his alone. "I am very pleased that my cabinet has received the support of President Arafat," he said. "The agreement on the cabinet marks a victory for the Palestinian people as it demonstrates our commitment to democracy, even as we live under Israeli occupation." Mr. Abbas founded the mainstream Fatah movement with Mr. Arafat but for 40 years has remained in the shadow of his friend and rival. He has almost no popular following. Palestinian analysts said he would quickly generate some enthusiasm if he achieves tangible benefits for Palestinians, like an easing of Israeli checkpoints and other restrictions.

Leaders of Hamas pounced on the role of foreigners to question the legitimacy of the new government. "The appointment of the prime minister was based on foreign interference," said Mahmoud Zahar of Hamas. "The forming of this new government is also based on foreign interference." That was why, he said, "the Palestinian street is shocked." Rising leaders of Fatah - who brought down a previous Arafat government in September and pushed through legislation last month to create a strong prime minister - were also disappointed.

"What happened was a stumble and not an achievement," said Qadoura Fares, a legislator from Fatah, ascribing the failure to Mr. Abbas and Mr. Arafat. "We built hopes on Abu Mazen of creating serious change. The change was not substantial, not what we were looking for." Several crucial details about the new government were left vague today: first among them, who would arbitrate future disputes between the president and prime minister. "God Almighty," replied Mr. Shaath, grinning and rolling his eyes skyward, when asked who would decide.

Further, the appointment of Mr. Dahlan did not clarify the question of who is ultimately in charge of security. Mr. Abbas has kept for himself the Interior portfolio, which oversees most security matters. Mr. Dahlan is to hold the title of state minister for security affairs.