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June 04, 2003

Who's the No. 1 Palestinian Now?

Time magazine piece on Arafat versus Abbas
[...]To succeed as Prime Minister, Abbas must not only survive Arafat's subversions but also win concessions from Sharon. He hopes to achieve the latter goal by reducing the violence against Israelis. To do that, he's working to persuade Hamas, the militant Islamic group, to observe a truce with Israel. Some of the group's political leaders in Gaza have shown signs that they might go along. Hamas military leaders in the West Bank, however, tell TIME they have warned the Gaza leaders not to cut such a deal. Otherwise, they say, they will start working for the Lebanese fundamentalist group Hizballah, Hamas' main competitor for the title of Israel's enemy No. 1.

Though the U.S. and Israel are urging Abbas to crack down on Hamas, he seems to believe a truce can work. Senior Palestinian police officers tell TIME they are not aware of any plans to arrest Hamas agents. A senior Israeli intelligence official says that so far, Dahlan and Abbas have offered "nice talk [but] nothing on the ground."

From the Palestinian point of view, Sharon offered his own nice talk last week. In a meeting of his Likud Party's parliamentary faction, he said the Israeli "occupation" of the West Bank and Gaza Strip couldn't continue indefinitely. Israeli right-wingers were outraged that Sharon should be the first Prime Minister to refer to the country's presence in those areas as an "occupation." The attorney general advised that the official terminology should be "disputed territories." But Palestinians welcomed Sharon's candor. In a meeting last week with Abbas, Sharon promised to allow more Palestinians to work inside Israel and to release some of the 1,300 Palestinian detainees Israel holds without charge. That's a move Israeli intelligence agencies strongly oppose. "Every prisoner release will reinforce the terrorists' power," says a senior intelligence source.

For Sharon, the main advantage of meeting Abbas in Aqaba is that he's not Arafat. While the two leaders meet in the sun with Bush and with Jordan's King Abdullah, Arafat will be stuck in his shell-scarred Ramallah office. He'll have missed an Arab summit with Bush in Egypt as well, a meeting Abbas is scheduled to attend. According to Fatah leaders, Arafat is furious that the Arab world seems ready to pass him by and start working with Abbas. As for Abbas, he's handling his foxy former boss carefully. After his three-hour meeting with Sharon last week, he went straight to Ramallah to report the details to Arafat. The next day, Arafat asserted his relevance by calling a meeting of the P.L.O.'s executive committee to discuss the Abbas-Sharon parley. Abbas usually attends such functions. This time, in the tradition of sulks and boycotts, he did not. [more]