JERUSALEM — Israeli and American officials were watching nervously this week as the prime minister-designate of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, tried to maneuver his way through a series of obstacles laid in his path by his boss, P.A. chairman Yasser Arafat.
Several sources close to the Palestinian leadership told the Forward this week that Arafat was resisting the efforts of Abbas, known as Abu Mazen, to establish an independent administration capable of fighting terrorism and providing financial accountability. The main stumbling block, the sources said, was Abu Mazen’s intention to put the former Gaza preventive security chief, Muhammad Dahlan, in charge of Palestinian security operations. Arafat is said to dislike and mistrust Dahlan. “The trouble is that Dahlan knows where the bodies are buried,” a Western diplomatic observer told the Forward.
Abu Mazen is seen as the lynchpin to Palestinian government reforms that could open the way to a renewal of Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations during the coming weeks. President Bush has promised to release the “road map” to peace after Abu Mazen is sworn in as prime minister, an action that was expected within days.
Bush reaffirmed his plans this week, telling reporters after a summit meeting in Northern Ireland with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that he was “pleased with the new leader of the Palestinian Authority.”
“I look forward to him finally putting his Cabinet in place so we can release the road map,” Bush said.
Abu Mazen was scheduled to name his Cabinet this week, but sources close to him said he was considering delaying the announcement after learning of Arafat’s latest moves.
Abu Mazen, a close associate of Arafat’s since the founding of Fatah movement in 1959, has spoken out repeatedly in recent months against the violence of the Palestinian intifada, arguing that attacks on Israeli civilians have damaged the Palestinian cause. Some figures close to Prime Minister Sharon have questioned Abu Mazen’s credibility, noting that he has not condemned attacks against Israeli soldiers and settlers.
However, Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Major General Aharon Ze’evi, told the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee this week that Abu Mazen was genuinely intent on bringing about a shift from terrorism and armed resistance to a diplomatic process.
Ze’evi said Abu Mazen intends to rid the Palestinian security apparatus of radical Islamic elements and individuals involved in terrorist activities.
Abu Mazen also intends to restructure Fatah to serve as a link between the Palestinian public and the Palestinian Authority, Ze’evi said. In addition, he said, Abu Mazen plans to fight corruption and to neutralize the terrorist organizations’ branches in neighboring countries, especially in Syria.
Sources at the closed committee meeting said that Ze’evi acknowledged the obstacles faced by the incoming prime minister, including the possibility that Arafat will outmaneuver and undermine him.
Ze’evi also acknowledged that Abu Mazen’s long-range strategic objectives were similar to those of Arafat in that both wanted to establish a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders, including East Jerusalem. Both also advocate the right of return for Palestinians.
Abu Mazen reportedly was informed last weekend that Arafat intended to veto several of the ministers mentioned as possible members of a new Abu Mazen Cabinet, particularly Dahlan, whom Abu Mazen wants as interior minister, responsible for all the security services. Various creative formulas meant to leave the Interior Ministry in Abu Mazen’s hands and name Dahlan as an adviser have also been ruled out by Arafat.
In addition, sources close to Abu Mazen said he discovered that two key security services, the General Intelligence force under Tawfiq Tirawi and the National Security force under Haj Ismail, two of the most dedicated Arafat loyalists, will continue to operate under direct command of Arafat even after Abu Mazen forms his government.
Sources close to Abu Mazen said that the prime minister-designate’s travels throughout the West Bank and Gaza in recent weeks had revealed to him a gloomy picture of what is going on in the P.A.-controlled areas. The various security forces are operating as private militias with criminal characteristics, the administration is corrupt and personal corruption of several leading officials “astonished” him, say sources close to the prime minister-designate.
But apparently what most deters him now is a series of steps Arafat has taken in recent days that are said to have made the P.A. chairman’s intentions clear.
Last Saturday, Abu Mazen discovered that Arafat intends to take full control over the formation of the new government. Arafat did not send a direct message to that effect but instead convened Fatah’s Central Committee in Ramallah. At the meeting Abu Mazen was invited to brief the committee on expected Fatah appointees.
Arafat opened the meeting with the words, “We gave Abu Mazen authority and so far he has not provided us with the list of ministers.” Sources close to Abu Mazen said it was clear from his words that Arafat wanted the committee to make the appointments, and not Abu Mazen.
Instead of reporting on his plan, Abu Mazen chose to sound out the committee by engaging it in a discussion. During the discussion it became clear that most of the central committee members expect Hanni el-Hassan, an Arafat loyalist, to remain as interior minister.
Since Abu Mazen took on the job of forming a government, the name Hanni el-Hassan has been a red flag for him, the last person he wants in his Cabinet.
He also found out that many of the members of the central committee expect to be appointed to the Cabinet. Abu Mazen reportedly had hoped to retain no more than four members of the old guard in a Cabinet of 20 to 24 members.
Although the recently adopted Palestinian Basic Law grants him extensive authority, his maneuverability has been greatly reduced. In effect, other than the appointment of an office manager, Nabil Kasis of Bethlehem, he has not been able to do very much.
Even matters that appeared settled, such as economic reforms, are turning out to be reversible.
In recent days, Sami Ramlawi, who served as a treasurer for Arafat in the Finance Ministry, has returned to his job even though he was deposed with the appointment of the new finance minister, Salam Fayyad.
More than anyone else, Ramlawi is identified as Arafat’s paymaster, operating directly on behalf of Arafat and handing out cash. The old system, in which payrolls for security forces were made to the commanders of the forces, who then handed out the money to the troops — leading to extensive corruption — has returned.