Wed, Nov 12, 2003 - Page 6 News List

Revitalized Yasser Arafat showing he is back on top

SHOW OF POWER The Palestinian leader is looking healthy again after putting his prime minister in his place and weathering US and Israeli efforts to push him aside

AP , JERUSALEM

Just a month ago, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat appeared to be losing his grip on power, looking weak as rumors swirled that he was near death. His new prime minister was challenging him and an Israeli threat to "remove" him hung over his head.

Now, the ultimate political survivor is back on top, looking healthy after putting his prime minister in his place, keeping a firm hold over the Palestinian government and rebuffing US and Israeli efforts to push him aside.

The Palestinian's leader's rapid resurgence will likely frustrate efforts to resuscitate the US-backed "road map" peace plan, which envisioned an end to violence and the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, but stalled amid bloodshed and political maneuvering.

Both sides failed to meet their obligations -- Palestinian action against militants and an Israeli set-tlement freeze.

Arafat has consistently avoided confrontation with armed groups, said Dore Gold, an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

"To expect all of a sudden that Yasser Arafat will join the war on terrorism is to expect a conversion that nobody believes is going to occur," Gold said. "This just represents a major roadblock to the road map."

Hassan Khreishe, a Palestinian legislator, worried that Israel and the US would shun the Palestinian Cabinet, which was hand-picked by Arafat in a show of power. The Cabinet was announced Sunday and is to face a parliamentary vote of confidence tomorrow.

"This is Yasser Arafat's government," said Khreishe, a frequent critic of the Palestinian leader. "He chose it just to send a message to the world that Yasser Arafat is the decision maker here."

However, Israel stopped short of declaring a boycott. Israel will judge the new Palestinian government on its performance, Gold said.

The US and Israel, accusing Arafat of promoting terror attacks and refusing to deal with them, had pressured the Palestinians to create the office of prime minister. The intent was to shave off some of Arafat's power and eventually force him out of the picture.

The first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, resigned in September after just four months in office after tussling with Arafat over control of the Palestinian security forces.

His successor, Ahmed Qureia, was drawn into the same struggle, apparently realizing that he would have little success on the job without command of security. He sought to consolidate the eight branches of the security forces under General Nasser Yousef, his candidate for interior minister.

Resisting efforts to weaken him, Arafat played for time. Yousef handed Arafat an excuse to reject him when he refused to take part in a swearing-in ceremony -- conducted by Arafat -- of an emergency Cabinet. Yousef said the temporary Cabinet, appointed by Arafat decree, was invalid. Arafat turned his opposition to Yousef, who had surprised him by seeking broad powers, into something personal, now insisting that the general not serve in a new government.

Arafat's fortunes changed dra-matically just within a month. Last month, he had appeared ill and dazed in public, his eyes rheumy and his skin pale and clammy. Rumors circulated he had stomach cancer or suffered a mild heart attack.

However, he recovered from what his aides said was just a bad case of stomach flu. Israel's threats in September to "remove" him -- suggesting either expulsion or assassination -- boosted his sagging popularity at home, with one recent poll showing 50 percent of Palestinians supported him, up from 35 percent in June.

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