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Difficult Tasks Ahead for New Palestinian Government - 2003-04-24


After bitter disputes, much wrangling, and enormous international pressure a new Palestinian government has been formed under the leadership of Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. It is now up to the Palestinian legislature to confirm the government, and that is likely to happen early next week.

After that the hard part begins; reining in the militants and moving back to the negotiating table while at the same time satisfying the demands of average Palestinians for law and order and better daily lives.

After announcing the new government Wednesday in Ramallah, the two main protagonists came out, holding hands. There was Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, wearing his traditional kaffieh headdress and his military uniform. Next to him stood the new prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, in a smart business suit and smiling - but only just.

The international community, Israel, and many Palestinians are hoping that image will translate into reality and will represent a real transition. They hope Mahmoud Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, will be the new face of the Palestinians, the man who will move from military uniform and fighting, to business suit and negotiations.

Political analyst Mahdi Abdel Hadi, head of the Palestinian study institute, PASIA, says that is a bit much to expect. He says reform is slow, and he says that is why the new cabinet has to include the old and new.

"You still need some of the old guard, some of the old faces to balance the relationship between Arafat's office, Abu Mazen's future government in the making as well as the constituency on the street," he said. "You need to build that constituency slowly and gradually. It is not a political coup d'etat, and it cannot be."

Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas have been together in the ranks of the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization for some four decades. Mr. Abbas has been Mr. Arafat's number two for some time. But, their bitter dispute over sharing power and forming the new government almost wrecked their long relationship, even though the two men put on a show of unity as they announced the new cabinet.

And more daunting tasks await Mr. Abbas as he moves on.

The United States has said it will unveil its so-called road map to Middle East peace and an independent Palestinian state as soon as Mr. Abbas and his new government are confirmed. He will be expected to take the Palestinians back to the negotiating table after more than two and one-half years of conflict.

And first, there will be the pressure from Israel for him to rein in the Palestinian militants and their attacks against Israelis.

Israel has long refused to deal with Yasser Arafat, whom it accuses of continuing to support terrorism. But Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's spokesman, Raanan Gissin, says he believes Israel can work with Mr. Abbas.

"I mean, definitely he is not an Arafat. He also voiced his opinion and showed in the past that he is against violence and terrorism," he said. "And by all means, we are willing to give him a chance to prove that."

Reining in the militants may end up being one of the first priorities facing the new government, and it will fall largely to Mr. Abbas and his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan to do that.

But political analyst Abdel Hadi says the suicide bombing in the central Israeli town of Kfar Saba shows just how tough that task is going to be.

"The explosion in Kfar Saba was a clear message to Abu Mazen's government that some people are not happy with the formation of the government … and people want to go for resistance … i.e., Hamas, Islamic Jihad and some of the angry old guard of Fatah," he said.

Mr. Abdel Hadi says the new prime minister and his government need to prove to average Palestinians that they are not only trying to please the Israelis and Americans, but that they also are going to make life better for their own people.

"The priority for the society today - they want to see this government's program," he said. "What do you have in your basket, slogans or reality on the ground? Are we going to see law and order? Are we going to see an efficient security apparatus? Are we going to see elections in the process?"

Mr. Abdel Hadi says that if the Abbas government cannot deliver those results, it will not succeed. He predicts there will still be some hefty discussion when the legislature meets in the coming days, but he predicts Mahmoud Abbas and his cabinet will be confirmed.

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