April 24, 2003
RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat and his prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, ended their bitter standoff over the composition of a new Cabinet on Wednesday, clearing the way for a Mideast peace initiative backed by Washington.
The long-awaited "road map" holds out the prospect of ending 31 months of Israeli-Palestinian fighting and establishing a Palestinian state. It also would respond to pressure on the United States by Arab and European countries to promote Mideast peace at a time when its troops occupy Iraq.
The United States and Israel have boycotted Arafat, accusing him of links to terrorism. President Bush said he would unveil the plan only after the formal establishment of Abbas' government, which U.S. and Israeli officials hope will amount to a means of sidelining Arafat.
"When that happens we will officially provide the road map to the parties soon thereafter," White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.
Wednesday's deal was made possible when Arafat backed down under intense international pressure and withdrew his challenge to Abbas' security team in exchange for a promise he would be consulted on major decisions -- including, presumably, a crackdown on Palestinian militias.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon responded cautiously Wednesday night, saying only that it was, "of course, very important that on the other side there should be a person whose wish is for an end to terror and for peace." Israel, he said, "will make every effort to reach a diplomatic agreement that, God willing, will lead to peace."
Deputy Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said "one should judge the deeds and not the declarations."
"We have to wait and see if the new Cabinet will, in fact, be sworn in and how it will act, taking into account Arafat's staunch resistance to it and his capacity to undermine any process of reform," he said.
Palestinian and Egyptian officials said Arafat, in exchange for backing down, was given guarantees regarding his personal safety and was told Egypt would ask Israel to lift a travel ban on him in effect since December 2001. Several Israeli Cabinet ministers have called for Arafat's expulsion from the West Bank, a move opposed by Washington.
The dayslong wrangling was a sign of Arafat's continued resistance to sharing power after four decades as the unchallenged Palestinian leader. The crisis also suggested Arafat will try to limit Abbas' authority, while the new premier can count on international backing in such confrontations.
Under the emerging arrangement, Abbas, who has called the violent uprising against Israel a mistake, would control the important security force and day-to-day government. That means he would be able to crack down on militants and ensure official money does not reach them.
But Arafat retains control over other security bodies -- and, critically, appears to retain the final say in peace talks with Israel.
Abbas, emerging from Arafat's office, played down the extent of his falling-out with the Palestinian leader, even though he had been quoted as saying the relationship was beyond repair.
"This wasn't a crisis," he said. "There were obstacles, and they have been removed."
Abbas released his Cabinet list, which requires the approval of the 88-member Palestinian legislature, late Wednesday. Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia said he would convene legislators within a week, possibly Sunday or Monday.
Abbas and Arafat ended their dispute seven hours before a midnight Wednesday deadline, after Egyptian intelligence chief Omar Suleiman shuttled between the two seeking compromise and Arab and European leaders called Arafat.
Abbas has the sole authority to choose his ministers, but in this case required Arafat's blessing.