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Who is winner in Palestinian power struggle?

Arafat seeks to keep control as Abu Mazen becomes PM

By Jerrold Kessel
CNN

CNN's Jerrold Kessel
CNN's Jerrold Kessel

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- A delicately delivered bloodless coup, or a major comeback of a wily leader determined to prove that those who had counted him out had counted too early?

The political juries are still out on which reading is more accurate of the outcome of the leadership struggle faced by Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat, one that culminated Tuesday when the Palestinian parliament approved a new Cabinet under Prime Minister Abu Mazen, also known as Mahmoud Abbas.

Once the two men had agreed on the Cabinet's composition, one of the mysteries from last week's celebratory photo op was why Arafat looked so jubilant, why Abu Mazen looked so gloomy. It's unclear who will emerge as the winner from this bruising battle.

It has been a classic power struggle, with the 73-year-old Arafat battling to retain control in face of a vigorous assault by Palestinian reformers acting on a mandate from -- though not under the direction of -- outside forces. Washington and Israel have made it clear that the revival of Middle East peace efforts hinges on change at the top of the Palestinian Authority and on a sustained crackdown on terrorist activity.

On the surface, the Cabinet composition tussle revolved around Arafat's bid to prevent the re-emergence of Mohammed Dahlan as the powerful interior minister, the man who controls Palestinian security forces. Arafat is angry because he believes Dahlan is prepared to acquiesce to Israeli and U.S. efforts to sideline him, high-level sources in the Palestinian Authority say.

In the end, Abu Mazen will take the key portfolio himself, while Dahlan -- over Arafat's objections -- will be in the Cabinet as a special minister for security affairs.

The personnel issue, while the most visible aspect of the power struggle, masks other key elements in this fight.

The first is tactical-strategic.

Arafat remains true to an approach that has guided him through 30 months of bitter battles with the Israeli army -- that the Intifada uprising is legitimate and needs to be maintained alongside earnest political endeavors, the goal to push Israel to end its occupation.

Abu Mazen and Dahlan subscribe to that final goal of a two-state agreement roughly along Israel's old 1967 borders with the West Bank and Gaza. But they are reliably reported to believe that the armed facet of the uprising, and especially the suicide bombing strategy in Israeli towns, undermines Palestinians' self-interests.

Moreover, say sources involved in Palestinian nation-building, Dahlan is ready to back Abu Mazen in a confrontation with militant Islamic groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad if they refuse to suspend armed struggle while international peace efforts go ahead.

To bolster this strategy, the sources say, Dahlan plans to fold into the command of the regular Palestinian security forces the mainstream Fatah militias, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades. Until now, this military offshoot of Arafat's Fatah movement has been no less active than Hamas in attacking Israelis.

This tactical matchup underscores the kernel of the struggle: Arafat's fight for political survival.

As he determinedly resisted the change, Arafat was told bluntly by one of his European interlocutors: "Mr. President, you have a choice to be eclipsed, to be the 'Palestinian Haile Selassie,' or you can assume the honorable mantle as the 'Palestinian Nelson Mandela.' "

Arafat, it seems, believes he can continue to dominate Palestinian policymaking.

Arafat loyalists point out that the formation of the new government -- which will pave the way for the publication of the Middle East "road map" toward a Palestinian state alongside Israel -- has only been able to proceed because he eventually concurred.

Another drama that remains to be played out is whether the United States and Israel will succeed or fail to convince international leaders from continuing to treat Arafat as the man who makes the key decisions.

And what of the new leader, Abu Mazen, the 68-year-old erstwhile Arafat deputy in the Palestinian struggle, now alongside him at the top?

"For Abu Mazen to succeed," says one official who knows him and Palestinian community challenges well, "he has to survive three key showdowns: with Yasser Arafat, with the Islamic militants ... and thirdly with himself."


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