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Arafat’s Plot to Thwart the U.S.

2 minute read
Matt Rees and Jamil Hamad

Furious that Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat hasn’t halted terror attacks on Israelis, the U.S. wants thorough reform of his Palestinian Authority. Mainly, American diplomats are pushing to convert Arafat’s presidency to a purely ceremonial post, shifting the real business of running the government to a new, popularly elected Prime Minister. But Arafat has other ideas.

He told his Cabinet how he plans to thwart the Americans. First, elections will be held in January only if the Israelis pull their troops out of all Palestinian towns–something that looks less likely with each new terror attack, like the Hebrew University bombing last week that killed seven. Second, rather than be relegated to a symbolic role, Arafat plans to step aside as President and run for the Prime Minister’s job himself. He has suggested Haider Abdel Shafi, a respected Gazan, for the ceremonial presidency. Abdel Shafi was unavailable for comment, but aides close to Arafat say the Palestinian leader’s aim is to give the impression of acceding to the U.S. plan while retaining power for himself.

Arafat is already undermining the modest reforms he has undertaken since the U.S. increased the pressure on him to clean house three months ago. He blocked attempts last week by his new Interior Minister to fire seven senior police officers. And despite an earlier promise to remove the head of the National Security forces in the West Bank, Haj Ismail Jabr, whom Palestinian officials have accused of corruption, Arafat now wants simply to change Jabr’s job and make him head of the police force, aides say.

Such tactics are starting to frustrate Arafat’s own people. Mahmoud Abbas, secretary-general of the P.L.O. executive committee (who is also known as Abu Mazen), was favored by senior Palestinians for the Prime Minister’s job. He stormed off to Qatar three weeks ago in anger at the lack of progress, telling friends he planned to quit. He was persuaded to return by Egyptian and Jordanian leaders who want to keep the pressure on Arafat for change. Palestinian officials close to Abbas expect him to have a showdown with Arafat soon.

–By Matt Rees and Jamil Hamad

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