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Mahmoud Abbas is facing the most important test of his short political career as Palestinian prime minister. After he reports to Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat on the results of his visit to Washington, he will have to go before the Legislative Council (Palestinian parliament) for a renewed vote of confidence.

Abbas did not submit his candidacy in 1996 council elections - he became prime minister only because Arafat caved in to pressure and appointed him. However, Abbas draws his authority not only from that appointment but also from the act in which he presented his government and its political program to the Palestinian parliament and won the confidence of the majority of the delegates.

What will happen this time? The middle of this week will mark the end of the first month since the hudna (cease-fire) was declared, and the Palestinian public have a feeling that they paid the price - by ending terrorist attacks - but have got nothing in return. Some spokesmen in the Palestinian Authority - a writer in the PA newspaper, Al-Hayat al-Jedida for example - lost no time in declaring last week: "If Abbas does not succeed in getting prisoners released, he will have no choice but to resign." The leaders of Hamas called on Abbas not to make the trip to Washington, as the visit will not advance the Palestinian cause. Now, on his return from his talks with the leaders of the administration, everyone will put what he achieved there under a powerful microscope. If it turns out there were few achievements, there is a distinct possibility that Abbas and his government will lose the vote of confidence.

The vote in the Palestinian parliament could be postponed until next week, until it becomes clear, after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Washington, how far he is willing to go to meet Palestinian demands. However, the most probable scenario is that the Palestinians are going to be disappointed and frustrated by the Israeli position.

Miserably little

The criteria and the quotas that Israel has proposed for the release of Palestinian prisoners do not even begin to meet their expectations. An IDF withdrawal and evacuation of the checkpoints will be miserably little too from the Palestinians' point of view. Therefore, a scenario that projects Abbas' resignation within a short time - and Arafat's immediate appointment of a new prime minister - cannot be considered far-fetched.

This evaluation is reinforced by the unsuccessful campaign that Israel, with U.S. help, recently conducted to isolate Arafat and get others to boycott him. Recent trips by Sharon and Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom focused on demands that European leaders shun Arafat. Palestinian spokesmen have been playing up the fact that the Israeli demand was rejected.

There can be disagreements about the role Arafat played in undermining the peace process - "he even refused to stop wearing military uniform," Israel noted in the campaign against him - but there is no dispute that he was elected democratically. Israeli policy, which preaches democracy and urges the Palestinians to adopt a democratic way of life, encounters an embarrassing contradiction when it demands the removal of a leader who succeeded in free elections.

And as long as Arafat is there and has international recognition, Abbas' standing will be insecure. Vigorous support for Arafat was voiced last week by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. After the Israeli lobby in Washington got Congressmen and Senators to send letters to Arab leaders demanding that they boycott Arafat, Mubarak called on the leaders in question not to accede to this request.

The images broadcast at the weekend went a long way toward highlighting the difference that is emerging between Abbas and Arafat. We have seen Abbas was seen in the company of world statesmen, ranking Arab leaders, and most recently the U.S. leadership. But the Palestinian press last week ran photographs of Arafat with the Ramallah youth fencing team and with the participants in a summer camp organized by the churches in Jerusalem, all of whom visited him at his headquarters in the Muqata, in Ramallah.

Arafat's political activity last week took the form of a talk he gave to the charges d'affaires of Arab states who are active in the PA, in which he warned against the resumption of visits by non-Muslims to the Temple Mount. He also sent a cable of congratulations to the president of Somalia on the occasion of it's Independence Day.

Overdoing it

However, we must not allow these images to deceive us. All the manifestations of respect Abbas is being shown abroad are not helping him gain popularity among Palestinians. In some cases the very opposite is so - the fact that he is accepted in the United States, Europe and the Arab states only raises suspicion that Abbas may well be overdoing the concessions he is making to Israel and to the international community, and that he is not being faithful to Palestinian interests.

Arafat is very careful with the replies he makes when asked about his relations with Abbas. Thus, he told an Italian journalist last week: "Abu Mazen (Abbas) and I are in fact one entity and we have been fighting together for 42 years." Arafat is also continuing to emphasize that he is authorizing and blessing all of Abbas' political activities.

At the same time, he is carefully monitoring every move made by Abbas and demands an immediate report after every meeting the prime minister holds. Apart from their talks in Washington, Abbas and the senior officials accompanying him on this trip (Abu Ala, Nabil Sha'ath, Mohammed Dahlan and Salem Fayad) also visited three Arab countries, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco, and updated Arafat several times a day by telephone.

When Abbas goes before the Palestinian parliament, there will be quite a few delegates who will not hesitate to criticize him. The interesting question here is what Arafat will do. Will he sit quietly without saying a word in the defense of Abbas, as he has done at least twice in meetings of the Palestinian leadership?

He has a wide range of ploys to choose from, if he wishes. He can praise Abbas but intimate to his confidants that they have every right to condemn him and call on him to resign. As for Abbas, he has already threatened to resign on several occasions and will no longer be able to use that weapon. A top Palestinian figure observed last week that Abbas has already been in office a week longer than people thought when he was appointed.

If Abbas resigns, that will not mean the end of the cease-fire or the end of the road map. Both processes could continue even after Arafat appointed a new prime minister. Some officials in the Palestinian leadership are already dealing with the question of who the possible candidates might be to form a new government - Nabil Sha'ath; Salem Fayad; Saeb Erekat? It may be too soon to eulogize Abbas politically, but the days ahead will be critical for his future.