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Palestinian PM threatens to quit

Abbas helped co-found the mainstream Fatah faction with Arafat at the end of the 1950s, but has staked out his ground as a moderate, calling this year for a suspension of armed attacks on Israel to allow peace talks the chance to resume.
Palestinian PM threatens to quit
By Hisham Abdallah, Ramallah, Middle East Online

Moderate Palestinian prime minister-designate Mahmud Abbas has threatened to quit just three days ahead of a deadline to announce a new cabinet on which reformists' hopes are riding.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, stormed out of a meeting with veteran Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat late Saturday, officials said, in a row over Arafat's refusal to appoint a security chief who would crack down on militants.

He has until Wednesday to form a new cabinet, after which date Arafat is obliged by law to ask a new premier to put together a government.

One member of Fatah Central Committee, in whose offices the talks were being held, said Abbas had threatened Arafat with his resignation, the second time he has done so this month.

Abbas's appointment as prime minister last month was a key demand of Washington, which is intent on sidelining the Palestinian leader whose administration is widely accused of corruption and complicity with militant groups.

US President George W. Bush has said he will publish a long-awaited international "roadmap" for Middle East peace once Abbas has announced his new government line-up.

But officials close to the protracted cabinet talks said that while many appointments had been agreed, Arafat had repeatedly refused to appoint Mohammed Dahlan as internal security boss under Abbas, who is expected to serve as his own interior minister.

Dahlan, a former colonel in the Gaza Strip security force tasked with preventing attacks on Israel, quit his post last year after falling out with Arafat, who is accused by Israel and the United States of doing too little to fight "terrorism."

Dahlan is seen as a tough figure whose appointment would be welcomed by the United States, which is expected to put pressure on both sides to find a solution to the 30-month crisis after it has brought the situation in Baghdad under control.

Officials here said that after Abbas walked out of the Fatah Central Committee talks chaired by Arafat, members went to his home to try to persuade him to return.

"The situation is very sensitive," said one mediator. "The sticking point is Dahlan, who Abu Mazen is insisting on having in the cabinet."

Committee members said talks would resume Sunday, but it was not confirmed that Abbas would attend.

Mediators meeting with Abbas had reportedly proposed giving Dahlan the security portfolio but with an Arafat loyalist as overall interior minister.

Arafat wants to keep incumbent interior minister Hani al-Hassan, a long-time supporter of the Palestinian leader.

Abbas helped co-found the mainstream Fatah faction with Arafat at the end of the 1950s, but has staked out his ground as a moderate, calling this year for a suspension of armed attacks on Israel to allow peace talks the chance to resume.

Former Gaza strongman Dahlan, a member of Fatah but not of the powerful Central Committee, is expected to face down Palestinian militant groups who have rejected Abbas's proposal to suspend attacks.

That would help the implementation of the "roadmap" - which would lead to Palestinian statehood by the end of 2005 - and whose first stage specifies an end to militant attacks.

Last week an Israeli official said Abbas's confirmation at the head of a new cabinet would prompt the Jewish state to ease its crippling blockade on the occupied territories and move troops out of towns in the West Bank it has occupied since June last year in response to suicide bombings.

"If Abu Mazen has real powers and undertakes the war on terrorism by inspiring respect for law and order, we will be ready to ease the blockade, release prisoners and speed up the transfer of funds we owe the Palestinians," the official said.

He added that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who has met with Abbas in the past, was willing to meet with him again after he forms the new Palestinian cabinet.

Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz hit out at Arafat's intransigence on Sunday, saying that by continuously putting obstacles in Abbas' way, the Palestinian leader was "feeding him with bitter things", the website of Israeli daily Yediot Ahronot said.

Arafat was "exposing his lack of desire to push forwards the peace process", Mofaz said, but added that he hoped that European and US pressure would bring about a change in Palestinian leadership and the establishment of a new government.

Since his appointment on March 19, the Palestine Liberation Organization's number two has been trying to form a new government, but has encountered numerous problems.

At the beginning of April, he threatened to quit in protest at Arafat's dogged resistance to relinquishing control of the security services.

Members of the Central Committee were said to be objecting to Dahlan, who was born in 1961 to a Gaza refugee family, arguing he was too junior and not from their own ranks.

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