Abbas steps down as premier

Recent developments
Beirut's 'Security Square'
Newsday in the Mideast
RAMALLAH, West Bank - Mahmoud Abbas submitted his resignation as Palestinian prime minister yesterday, citing differences with Yasser Arafat, and accusing Israel of sabotaging his reforms and the United States of failing to provide him support. His action placed in doubt the future of an American peace plan.

The prospects for that peace plan deteriorated further when, hours after Abbas resigned, Israel tried but failed to kill the spiritual leader and founder of Hamas, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, by bombing the apartment building in Gaza where he was meeting with the organization's senior leadership.

Abbas' resignation after four months in office leaves the Palestinian Authority without leadership acceptable to either the United States or Israel, which refuse to deal directly with Arafat yet have no other available partner. And Hamas said the failed attack on its founder would lead to reprisals whose targets could include Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Abbas, 68, submitted his resignation after a closed meeting with Palestinian legislators. He blamed Arafat, Sharon and the United States for his government's inability to improve the lives of Palestinians or take larger steps in the peace plan known as the road map.

"It's a crisis," said Mohammed al-Hourani, a legislator who supported Abbas. "I believe that today we lost a good prime minister who really wanted to do good things for the Palestinian people."

Mustafa Barghouti, a former legislator who attended the private session, said Abbas told the assembly that "the prime minister of Israel made promises to him and then didn't live up to them, and that Arafat didn't help, either."

U.S. and Israeli officials wanted Abbas to have full authority over the many competing Palestinian security forces, and to use them to disarm Hamas and other militant groups responsible for attacks against Israel. Only then, Israeli officials insisted, would Israel return greater control over the West Bank and Gaza to the Palestinian Authority.

There was considerable confusion last night as to whether Arafat had accepted Abbas' resignation. Legislators leaving Arafat's compound hinted that there was a chance that Abbas would return in exchange for expanded powers or that his resignation was an attempt to force a showdown with Arafat that would revive the peace plan.

But several Palestinian officials said last night that Abbas' decision was final. "He has no intention of coming back," one source said.

Legislators said Abbas had been undermined by Sharon's expansion of Jewish settlements and the construction of a wall designed to separate Palestinian villages from Israel and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Michael Tarazi, a Palestine Liberation Organization lawyer, said that Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, could have succeeded despite obstacles created by Arafat if Israel and the United States had given him greater backing.

"Arafat could not stop him or help him," he said. "Israel and the Americans could have helped him. He would have been more empowered because he would have had the people behind him. He didn't have the people behind him because their situation got worse, not better. And that is because of what Israel did."

In Washington, the Bush administration said the Palestinians needed to find a new leader who stood apart from "a corrupt few tainted by terror," a clear reference to Arafat.

"We hope the Palestinian legislature will continue to act in a way that empowers the prime minister to fight terror and bring a better way of life to the Palestinian people," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said in a statement.

"The creation of the office of prime minister was a key turning point for the Palestinian Authority in the development of new institutions to serve all the people, not just a corrupt few tainted by terror. The prime minister must be supported by a Cabinet committed to fighting terror, political reform and rooting out corruption."

The administration can not easily reverse course by resuming contacts with Arafat, who remains by far the most powerful figure in the West Bank and Gaza. But because of tensions in the region, it also can not easily give up on the road map.

Israeli officials reacted cautiously to the resignation, calling it "an internal Palestinian affair" but also warning in a government statement that Arafat would not be an acceptable partner. "It goes without saying," the statement said, "that Israel will not countenance a situation in which control of the Palestinian leadership reverts back to Yasser Arafat or someone who does his bidding."

A Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem said that Abbas submitted his resignation to force Arafat to relinquish more power. "Our initial assessment is that this will all blow over," said the official, who spoke on the condition that he not be named. "We continue to see Abu Mazen as the person with whom we want to implement the road map."

The official disputed Abbas' contention that Israel's policies forced his departure. "I think that it is very clear that Abu Mazen for various reasons has been reluctant, unwilling and unable to do anything about the terrorist infrastructure," the official said. "The Palestinians have had more than enough chances to show they are serious about fighting terror, and they have not lifted a finger."

Arafat has 15 days from the time he officially accepts Abbas' resignation to name a new prime minister, and several people are being mentioned as possible successors. They include Ahmed Korei, the speaker of parliament, and Munib al-Masri, a wealthy businessman with many international contacts.

Abbas' resignation is likely to bring the resignation of his security chief, Mohammed Dahlan, who has strong backing from the United States.

Arafat reluctantly appointed Abbas to the newly created post of Palestinian prime minister in March; lawmakers approved the appointment in late April. Though Arafat and Abbas were co-founders of the dominant Fatah political faction, they were constantly at odds during Abbas' time in office over control of the security forces.

His main accomplishment was an agreement by Fatah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad to temporarily end attacks against Israel. That agreement broke down when Israel attacked suspected militants, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad retaliated.

A Hamas suicide bombing that killed 22 people aboard a bus in Jerusalem last month put Abbas under even greater pressure to confront the militant group. But, lacking authority over most of the Palestinian security forces, he said he could not act because of the risk of starting civil war.

On Thursday, Abbas demanded that parliament either give him the power he needed to succeed or choose someone else as prime minister.

His aides said he had no intention of resigning Thursday. But they said he was visibly shaken when a mob surrounded him at the entrance of the parliament building and masked men supporting Arafat shattered windows there.

"This government was doing a lot, and it collapsed because of bickering," Ziad Abu Amr, a Palestinian Cabinet minister from Gaza, said of Abbas' poor relations with Arafat.

But others laid the blame squarely on Israel. "Sharon has done everything possible to make this government fail," said Cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo. "Sharon is not interested in seeing a moderate Palestinian government. Sharon prefers a crisis that gives him the pretext to undermine the road map."

Last night, Abbas released a statement condemning the attack on Yassin and other Hamas leaders, saying it "reaffirms Israel's unwillingness to take the path of peace." He warned Israel against "taking advantage of the current political crisis ... to escalate its aggression against the Palestinian people."

Palestinian officials said that Yassin, a quadriplegic, was leaving a meeting with a professor of Arabic literature when an Israeli aircraft dropped a 550-pound bomb on a three-story apartment building. Yassin was wounded in the shoulder, doctors said. About a dozen other people were injured in the blast.

Israeli army officials said the strike targeted an apartment where Yassin and other senior members of Hamas were meeting. It was the sixth such attack by Israel in the past three weeks, actions that have killed a dozen members of Hamas and five bystanders.

Military sources said that in addition to Yassin, Hamas leaders inside the building included Abdel Aziz Rantisi, head of the political wing; Ismail Haniya, a senior political figure; and Mohammed Deif, head of the militant wing.