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Last Updated: Wednesday, 27 August, 2003, 12:29 GMT 13:29 UK
Analysis: Palestinian power struggle
Martin Asser
By Martin Asser
BBC News Online, Jerusalem

It has been a vintage few days for Yasser Arafat watchers, as they observe the old fox twisting and tugging to free himself from an ever-tightening noose put around his neck by the Americans and Israelis.

Abu Mazen chairing a cabinet meeting, with a portrait of Yasser Arafat above him
Arafat's shadow is hanging over Abu Mazen
Analysts say the best way to understand his actions is as part of an escalating power struggle between the Palestinian leader and his Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who also happens to be one of his most loyal and long-lasting allies.

The prime ministership of Mr Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, was imposed on Mr Arafat by the United States, which has refused to deal with him as a leader "tainted by terrorism".

Since then, Mr Arafat has done everything possible not to let his comrade accumulate more power as PM than he has as "MP", that is Mister Palestine - the father of his people's liberation struggle.

"All his career, Arafat has wanted to be Number One, with no Number Two," as one analyst in Ramallah put it.

But it is a shame, the analyst added, that once again Mr Arafat appeared to be sacrificing his people's aspirations for a better future in order to secure his own political future.

Soap opera

Unlike the dedicated Arafat-watchers, out on the streets of Ramallah today few ordinary Palestinians can raise much interest in events over at the half-destroyed compound where the president of the Palestinian Authority has been confined for nearly two years.

People have followed the latest moves:

  • Arafat puts forward veteran security specialist Nasser Youssef as interior minister and is rebuked by Abu Mazen

  • Arafat names former West Bank strongman Jibril Rajoub as national security supremo in direct competition with Abu Mazen's preferred choice for interior minister, Mohammed Dahlan

  • Abu Mazen favours Nabil Shaath's foreign affairs brief taking precedence over Arafat-favourite Farouk Qaddoumi

Etcetera, etcetera. But if it all sounds like the plot of a rather turgid soap opera, that is exactly how many Ramallah residents seem to be taking it.

"It's irrelevant to us," one man who runs a travel agency tells me bluntly.

A young woman working in a clothes shop says it is like watching Ali Baba and the 40 Thieves, adding: "To hell with them all".

Most people seem infinitely more concerned about the disruption expected to hit them after having enjoyed a few weeks of relative calm under the now-defunct "hudna", or temporary ceasefire, called by the militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad.

"Why should we care who is a minister?" asks the travel agent. "The ministers cannot do anything to end our humiliation and collective punishment by the Israelis and when they say they can, they are lying."

Street fighting men

The people I meet may not care much about the comings and goings around Mr Arafat and profess total indifference to the results of Wednesday's full cabinet meeting in Gaza called by Abu Mazen to discuss policy after the hudna collapse.

Gaza scene after strike
The collapse of the truce is bad news for the Palestinian PM
But, whether they like it or not, the consequences of the latest moves will surely fall on the heads of ordinary people.

For one thing, power politics as played by Mr Arafat has created a Palestinian political class which, analysts say, is utterly unfit to deal with the challenges it faces.

Historically, the winners have been the street fighters rather than the educated classes. Men like Jibril Rajoub, whose sudden promotion on Sunday was probably brought about, analysts say, by the way he has managed to keep a large and loyal following around him despite a widely reported falling out with Mr Arafat last year.

Lower down the pecking order, Mr Arafat has elevated no fewer than 800 Palestinian Authority officials to the rank of director general since he was forced to appoint Abu Mazen as PM.

Apparently none of these 800 has a proper job description; their role is to bolster Mr Arafat's position through patronage, analysts say.

And an informed source told the BBC that, since the intifada began, not one of the PA's 150,000 employees has missed a month's salary - despite the crushing economic conditions experienced by ordinary Palestinians, and they fact that many of these "public servants" do not actually have anything to do any more.

No wonder ordinary people who are not on the PA pay-roll feel disillusioned.

Endgame

So, what is the likely outcome of this round of behind-the-scenes power struggles?

Clearly Abu Mazen's position has sunk to its lowest ebb since his appointment, the hudna - his only tangible achievement - having been so spectacularly unsuccessful.

Mr Arafat, meanwhile, has taken the opportunity to give his rival a good, hard kick while he is down - by the appointment of Jibril Rajoub (who incidentally is believed to be a man the Americans may be willing to do business with).

It is the kind of internal Fatah dust-up that Mr Arafat has proved a master of in the past, but he is gambling with higher stakes and longer odds than ever this time.

He may well have neutralised the threat of Abu Mazen, just as he appears to have survived being ostracised for two years by the Americans. But does that mean Washington will welcome him back, as the only Palestinian leader capable of tackling the militants and delivering an illusive peace deal?

Probably not. As Saddam Hussein found out, some people in the Bush administration have long memories. And Israel may have other plans for Mr Arafat too.


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