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Sunday, Sept. 7, 2003
ARAFAT VS. ABBAS
Competing visions fuel leadership struggle
By RAMZY BAROUD
Special to The Japan Times
SEATTLE -- The buzz in the media about the "power struggle" between Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and his prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas (also called Abu Mazen), is misleading. The issue at stake is not simply the drive for power.
Yes, there is a kind of power struggle, but this is not your typical Third World quarrel between traditional and rebellious leaderships. Nor is it simply a scuffle between a leader representing the conventional chain of command and a vibrant new leader.
Both Arafat and Abbas are old, the former educated in Cairo and the latter in Moscow during the Soviet age. Moreover, Arafat is elected, and despite his ups and downs, he is still respected among Palestinians, while Abbas' popularity stands at 3 percent, equal to a survey's margin of error.
This is by no means an attempt to cheer for Arafat and taint Abbas. In fact, in a better, pressure-free environment, the appointment of Abbas would have been a step forward in the Palestinian nation's struggle for a healthy democratic experience. But wishful thinking aside, the pressure is on, if not because of the U.S. government's candid attempts to sideline Arafat then because of the continued Israeli occupation of Palestinian cities -- over which both Arafat and Abbas are supposedly presiding.
Maintaining respect as a leadership in an occupied land is hard enough for both leaders. Under these conditions, a power struggle over a land divided by settlements and ruled by a foreign army, to some, sounds pathetic, to say the least.
But things are often not as they seem. The real motives that fuel the so-called power struggle between Arafat and Abbas are manifested in the way the two leaders understand the current phase of the Arab-Israeli conflict, and their dissimilar visions for a solution to the conflict's unmatched impasse.
Abbas finds no justification, whatsoever, for violent retaliation from Palestinian groups, no matter how much violence is induced by Israel.
Arafat on the other hand, while he opposes suicide bombings or the targeting of civilians, believes that Israel's violence is doomed to suffer Palestinian retaliation. The best way to rein in "Palestinian militants," he argues, is an end to Israel's assassinations and the military occupation itself.
Arafat cheered the "road map" for Middle East peace, an initiative introduced by the United States and endorsed by other less involved parties. However, he had maintained a strong belief that Israel aimed to write off the agreement through provocations that would result in Palestinian retaliation.
Arafat echoed the same convention during a televised interview from his bombed-out headquarters in Ramallah last Tuesday. He told CNN, "The road map is dead, but only because of Israeli's aggressions in recent weeks." He also recounted another belief -- that Washington's pro-Israeli stance and passive involvement in implementing its own peace initiative were also to blame.
Abbas, however, is popular in Washington and was received with respect and admiration by President George W. Bush during a recent visit. Arafat never had the chance to confer with Bush, since Israel declared the Palestinian leader "irrelevant" to the peace process.
Abbas, unable to exert any kind of pressure on Israel, is vowing to crack down on Palestinian groups who resist the Israeli occupation and orchestrate suicide bombings in response.
In his view, to achieve such a campaign, the security apparatus must be unified under his command. Currently, he controls three of the barely standing security branches of the PA. The rest, including the 35,000-strong national security force, is under Arafat's control.
Arafat has been experiencing an immense amount of outside pressure to concede some of his leadership privileges to Abbas. He did. But Washington, Tel Aviv and Abbas himself are seeking more concessions, to varying degrees.
Arafat's fear is that leaving all of his leadership keys to Abbas, who in turn might implement Israel's wishes of dismantling all opposition groups, could lead to a civil war. Only Israel can benefit from the feared chaos.
Palestinians are not impressed with this leadership dispute.
Most Palestinians, although growing wary and resentful of the mounting outside pressure that fuels the conflict, seem more disturbed by the timing of the political row, taking place when, more than ever, they need unity and conformity.
No one expressed Israel's wishes more articulately than Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, who told Israeli Army Radio that "Arafat needs to disappear from the stage of history."
Mofaz was not simply urging new Palestinian blood but offering to deport Arafat, as he has repeated in the past. His latest remark, however, had a different spin, since it indicated Israel's growing interest in the internal Palestinian affair. Mofaz said that sending Arafat into exile is a matter of "finding the right moment" without damaging Abbas.
The Palestinian leadership dispute by no means revolves around the issue of a thrust for power and control, although such concepts might be of some relevance. This dispute is one that could bring a devastating end to the Palestinian intifada altogether, a popular uprising that impelled untold sacrifices by ordinary Palestinians, all with the hope of achieving freedom with justice.
It's easy to rush to conclusions that the so-called power struggle between Arafat and Abbas represents the PA president's clinging to power and refusing to concede to the "the more moderate" prime minister. This is not a dispute of moderation vs. extremism, traditionalism vs. democratization. This is a struggle of varied visions amid mounting external and internal pressure, threats of assassinations and a bewildered population that feels that the conflict is untimely, for it will serve Israel alone while seriously jeopardizing Palestinian national unity.
Ramzy Baroud, a Palestinian-American journalist is the editor of Palestine Chronicle, a leading Palestinian online publication, and a researcher for Al-Jazeera English news services. He is the editor of the book "Searching Jenin: Eyewitness Accounts of the Israeli Invasion," published by Cune Press.