Tenuous at the Top

The power struggle at the top of the Palestinian leadership weakened not only the Palestinian Authority's Yasser Arafat, but also Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who is considered Number 2 in the PA and the almost certain successor to Arafat.

The power struggle at the top of the Palestinian leadership weakened not only the Palestinian Authority's Yasser Arafat, who caved in on the appointment of Mohammed Dahlan as responsible for security, but also Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who is considered Number 2 in the PA and the almost certain successor to Arafat.

The struggle provided the chairman, whom the government of Israel has decided is "irrelevant," a moment in the limelight.

Arafat, who is sitting besieged and isolated in the Muqata, his Ramallah headquarters, has had no high-ranking visitors for more than a year. According to a report of his daily agenda, published regularly in the daily Al Ayyam, most of his diplomatic affairs over the past year have been confined to letters of holiday greeting with heads of state from around the world.

And now, everyone has been phoning him, including Arab leaders. First and foremost was Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who even sent his intelligence chief General Omar Suleiman here. Senior statesmen and diplomats from Europe and the United States have been phoning. Everyone took an interest, posing questions and asking him not to reshuffle the cards and to make concessions to Abu Mazen on the government's make-up.

The clear picture that emerged from this crisis is that Arafat, the weakened leader, is refusing to surrender. And in the meantime, even though he has made concessions, his power is still in his loins.

From the outset, Arafat did not want anyone to be prime minister at his side. He has never had a deputy or second-in-command; not in his position as chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, not as head of the Palestinian Authority and not as leader of the Fatah movement.

Now, in the twilight of his days (he will be 74 in August), it certainly does not seem to him that he needs anyone at his side, breathing down his neck and waiting to inherit.

When the internal and external pressures began for reforms and the appointment of a prime minister to impose order on the Palestinian regime, Arafat had several possible examples. He chose the model of Rafik Hariri, the prime minister of Lebanon (according to an analysis by researcher Dr. Mahdi Abdul Hadi of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs in East Jerusalem). Hariri is an excellent technocrat, politician and businessman who has used his connections and wealth to develop his country.

The Palestinian who best suited this model was Munib al-Masri of Nablus, who is one of the wealthiest Palestinians in the world. Arafat informed him of his offer and invited him to the Muqata. Masri is more than 70 years old, lacks real political experience and took the offer seriously - until the leadership of the ruling party (the Fatah movement) informed Arafat that this was a joke; the prime minister had to come from the ranks of the movement. In other words, the candidate had to be the most senior person in the movement, i.e. Abu Mazen.

In this context, the arguments about the division of powers between Arafat and Abu Mazen began. And then Arafat's suspicions were confirmed - that this was not just a matter of appointing a prime minister but of deposing him. Among Arafat's cronies, there were no dearth of people who said to him outright: This is a putsch!

Arafat knew, of course, that in Israel, the United States and elsewhere there had long been explicit talk about the need to get rid of the head of the Palestinian Authority because he was an obstacle to peace. What made Arafat angry was the discovery that some of his best friends in the leadership, people from his own Fatah movement, were lending a hand.

Therefore, Arafat began to undermine Abu Mazen by rejecting the list of ministers he proposed. From the moment the power struggle began, Abu Mazen did not fight back in kind. He could have appeared with his list of ministers before the members of the Palestinian parliament, who convened this week in Ramallah, and asked for their support. He could have initiated public meetings to explain what happened between him and Arafat.

Abu Mazen's old acquaintances say he does not have this sort of belligerent nature, he has never gathered a coterie of disciples around himself and he has never run in an election. Instead of fighting, he sequestered himself in his home and refused to see people.

"Abu Mazen isn't of the type of Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Abdel Nasser and carried out a diplomatic and social revolution," said one of his acquaintances yesterday, in the belief that Abu Mazen's ostensible success has, in fact, weakened him by exposing his weaknesses.