(AP) – RAMALLAH, West Bank – Yasser Arafat and his prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, clung to their positions Tuesday in a bitter dispute over naming a security chief, raising the possibility that Abbas will fail to form a Cabinet and resign.
Abbas’ resignation could cause considerable delays in unveiling a U.S.-backed “road map” to full Palestinian statehood within three years.
Abbas must present a list of ministers to Arafat by the end of the day Wednesday, as required by Palestinian regulations, and the Palestinian parliament then would have a week to vote on the new Cabinet.
Palestinian law does not provide for additional time, so if the deadline is missed, Arafat would have to appoint a new person and start the process over.
International mediators have urged Arafat not to stand in Abbas’ way. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Arafat on Tuesday and, according to one Palestinian official, delivered a stern message that everything must be done to assure that Abbas is installed as prime minister.
Arafat consulted with Cabinet ministers and senior members of the ruling Fatah party at his West Bank headquarters Tuesday. The meeting apparently was stormy, with yelling heard in the background when a reporter spoke to one of the participants by phone.
A senior Palestinian official close to Arafat said on condition of anonymity there was little hope for compromise and he expected Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, to resign. Arafat already is considering Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia as a possible replacement for Abbas, the official said.
Ostensibly, the disagreement is over Mohammed Dahlan, a former Gaza security chief whom Abbas wants to name to a key security position but whom Arafat opposes. Beyond that, there is a broader struggle over how much authority Arafat — for decades the Palestinians’ sole leader — is ready to relinquish.
The wrangling “is part of the labor pains of the transition to a new era” in Palestinian politics, Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat said, adding that a failure to install Abbas as prime minister would be devastating for the Palestinians.
Arafat does not want the independent-minded Dahlan in the Cabinet and prefers a confidant, Hani al-Hassan, as security chief. Dahlan has promised to crack down on Palestinian militias, and enjoys Israeli and U.S. support.
Al-Hassan has not confronted militant groups since being named interior minister last year and has been unable to persuade them to halt attacks on Israel.
Hassan Khreisheh, a Palestinian legislator, said Tuesday that Arafat was trying to sabotage Abbas’ Cabinet list because he was unwilling to surrender power.
“He (Arafat) fears he will not be the strongman in the coming phase,” Khreisheh said.
Lawmaker Hanan Ashrawi said the wrangling showed Arafat is having a hard time letting go of power, but she also accused Abbas of making some Cabinet appointments based on loyalty rather than merit.
The ruling Fatah party supports Arafat, with many officials complaining that Dahlan is corrupt and inexperienced. Fatah controls a majority in the 88-member parliament and Abbas’ Cabinet will not be approved without its support.
The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, citing Palestinian sources, reported Tuesday that Arafat was trying to undercut Abbas because of the prime minister’s plan to disarm militias, including the Fatah-linked Al Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigade. The report could not be confirmed.
Arafat and Abbas have not spoken since a stormy meeting Saturday and no meetings were scheduled Tuesday. There were no signs that either was ready to compromise. Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia and al-Hassan, both mentioned as possible candidates for prime minister, met with Arafat on Tuesday at his West Bank headquarters in Ramallah.
Israel’s foreign minister, Silvan Shalom, discussed the wrangling in a phone call with Secretary of State Colin Powell according to Jonathan Peled, a Foreign Ministry spokesman.
Shalom told Powell that “as long as Arafat continues to be an obstacle, it will be very difficult to make progress on the road map,” Peled said.
Shalom also said Israel has no preference for Palestinian prime minister as long as he has sufficient authority.