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Blair Steps Up Efforts to Help Resolve Palestinian Power Struggle - 2003-04-22


British Prime Minister Tony Blair has thrown himself into efforts to resolve a Palestinian power struggle that is threatening a new Middle East peace plan. According to a close associate of Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, Mr. Blair telephoned the Palestinian leader urging him to ensure the formation of a new government under prime minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas.

Close associates of Mr. Arafat say Mr. Blair called the Palestinian president and urged him to allow Mr. Abbas to form a new Cabinet by Wednesday, the deadline set by law.

The British prime minister's office confirmed that Mr. Blair and Mr. Arafat had a telephone conversation, but declined to disclose details.

There are growing signs that Mr. Arafat would not accept the list of candidates for ministerial appointments prepared by Mr. Abbas.

Palestinian officials say Mr. Abbas, who is also known as Abu Mazen, withdrew from mediation efforts, saying the process of dialogue with Mr. Arafat had completely broken down. Some officials were predicting that Mr. Abbas would step down and that Mr. Arafat would choose a replacement as the first Palestinian prime minister.

Among those understood being sounded out by Mr. Arafat is Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Shaath. A mediator in the crisis, Mr. Shaath also predicted publicly that Mr. Abbas would refuse to compromise and that he had no chance of forming a government.

But there are doubts as to whether a rival candidate for prime minister would be acceptable to the international community.

Mr. Abbas is seen as a moderate, who observers say is also planning to disarm Palestinian militia groups.

Mr. Abbas wants the former Gaza security chief, Mohammad Dahlan, to oversee the sensitive task of restoring law and order in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But Mr. Arafat is opposed to Mr. Dahlan's appointment and any disarming of Palestinian factions.

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