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Dispute with Arafat May Force New Palestinian PM to Quit - 2003-04-22

The political crisis between Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and his prime minister-designate, Mahmoud Abbas, appears to be deepening. The two have failed to agree on a new Palestinian government, leading to a prediction from at least one Palestinian mediator that Mr. Abbas will be forced to step down. Ross Dunn reports from Jerusalem.

Mr. Arafat personally selected Mr. Abbas to become the first Palestinian prime minister, but the two have fallen out over issues of strategy.

Observers say that behind the dispute over the formation of a new cabinet lay deeper divisions about what is the best course to take Palestinians toward their dream of a Palestinian state.

Mr. Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, has repeatedly said that armed struggle has actually been counterproductive to the Palestinian cause, and he has called for it to be at least suspended.

Palestinian officials told the Israeli daily newspaper Ha'aretz that the real issue is Mr. Abbas's vision for a new security policy and whether he must seek Mr. Arafat's approval for every decision he makes.

The newspaper says Mr. Abbas wants the power to oversee the dismantling of armed Palestinian factions. Mr. Arafat has reportedly said "no" to such a move, fearing it could lead to an outbreak of civil war in Palestinian society.

Mr. Abbas wants the sensitive task to be handled by former Gaza security chief Mohammed Dahlan, who he wants to become the Palestinian interior affairs minister. But Mr. Arafat says Mr. Dahlan is not acceptable and has suggested other candidates for the post.

Should the two leaders fail to agree by Wednesday, the deadline set by law on the formation of a new cabinet, Mr. Abbas may be forced to resign.

Palestinian officials say Mr. Arafat has begun sounding out other candidates for the post of prime minister, including cabinet minister Nabil Shaath.

Mr. Shaath, who has mediated in the dispute, told the Israeli news agency ITIM that Mr. Abbas cannot meet the deadline for the formation of a cabinet.

Mr. Shaath was quoted as saying, "Mahmoud Abbas has no chance of presenting a government due to the large gaps and the deep crisis between him and Yasser Arafat."

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom has also weighed into the debate. In a telephone call, he told Secretary of State Colin Powell that there will be no resumption of peace negotiations as long as Mr. Arafat remains the dominant power within the Palestinian Authority.

The issue is seen as having wider international significance as U.S. President G.W. Bush has said the U.S. administration will make public the so-called roadmap to peace only after a new Palestinian cabinet has been announced.