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Last Updated: Thursday, 24 April, 2003, 13:49 GMT 14:49 UK
Middle East's 'political theatre'
The BBC's Roger Hardy
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

After days of wrangling and intense international pressure, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas have reached a last-minute compromise on a new cabinet.

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (right) and newly appointed Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas (left)
Many feel Mr Arafat (right) outmanoeuvred Mr Abbas

Once the cabinet has been approved by the Palestinian parliament, the United States is to publish a peace plan known as the "road map" - and US Secretary of State Colin Powell is to visit the Middle East to discuss its implementation.

Stormy meetings, brinkmanship, threats of resignation and a dramatic last-minute compromise - there has been more than a touch of political theatre in the events of the last few days.

But things are not quite what they seem.

Power plays

This was not really about removing Yasser Arafat from power, as the Americans and the Israelis have been demanding.

Even now, after this long detour on the road to the road map, there is little optimism that the Bush administration takes it seriously

It is true he has been forced to share power - just how much will only become clear in the coming weeks - but he has shown in unmistakeable fashion that he still dominates the Palestinian scene.

Indeed, many feel Mr Arafat has outmanoeuvred the weak and lacklustre Mahmoud Abbas, the new prime minister who is still struggling to make his mark.

The real purpose of all the drama was to create a mechanism for breathing a bit of life into the peace process - a peace process in which the convenient fiction will be maintained that Mr Arafat has no role.

This rather curious state of affairs has come about because last year US President George W Bush and some of his advisers decided Yasser Arafat had to go, or at the very least be significantly marginalised.

Watching and waiting

Reluctantly, the other members of what is known as the Quartet - the Europeans, the Russians and the United Nations - went along with this decision.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell
Mr Powell insists he and President Bush are serious about peace plans

The Quartet hoped that once the Arafat problem had been sorted out, they could move ahead and implement their "road map" for Middle East peace.

But even now, after this long detour on the road to the road map, there is little optimism that the Bush administration takes it seriously.

Once the Palestinian parliament has approved the new cabinet and the road map has been published, everyone will be watching to see what Mahmoud Abbas can do.

General scepticism

Above all, they will be monitoring the first and most crucial task the road map assigns to him, that of ending Palestinian violence.

Israeli and American officials who have been boycotting Mr Arafat will now shake the hand of Mr Abbas.

These will include US Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is expected in the Middle East in early May for his first visit in a year.

In the face of general scepticism, he continues to insist that he is serious about reviving the peace process, and that so is President Bush.




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