Baltimore Sun

Palestinian prime minister faces challenges in vote of confidence

JERUSALEM - Struggling to restore a cease-fire with militant groups and fighting off challenges to his own power, Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas has called for a vote of confidence next week that he seems far from assured of winning.

Abbas has asked for a vote that could take place as early as Monday, when he is scheduled to address Palestinian legislators about his first 110 days in office. Some legislators, noting Abbas' disputes with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and the lack of progress in carrying out a new peace plan, said yesterday that they would not support him.

"I don't think that it's accepted that we go from one crisis to another," said Kadoura Fares, a legislator from Ramallah who supported Abbas in the past. "The media is talking more about the disputes between him and Arafat than about the Palestinian cause. They should agree, or we should find someone new."

Abdul Jawad Saleh, a council member from el-Bireh and a critic of Arafat, said it is time for Abbas to step down. "I think he needs a miracle to save him," Saleh said. "He didn't do anything for the past two months."

Arafat reluctantly appointed Abbas to his post in the spring amid pressure from U.S. officials who wanted an alternative leadership to Arafat, whom they regarded as an obstacle in the peace process.

But Arafat managed to retain much of his power. He has created two new security posts, undercutting efforts by Abbas to consolidate the police forces and order a crackdown on militant groups.

Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, met yesterday with cabinet ministers to try to rebuild confidence in his government, even as some of his closest aides urged him to resign.

Palestinian legislator Saeb Erekat warned that Abbas' resignation or ouster could mean the end of the peace process, and he urged U.S. officials to help bolster the government and stop the new Israeli military offensive.

"I really believe that all those who want the peace process to survive must enable Abu Mazen to survive," he said.

In a statement, Abbas blamed his troubles on Israel, which launched a string of attacks on the militant group Hamas after a suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem that killed 21 Israelis.

"The brutal Israeli government policy will only take us back to the vicious cycle of violence," Abbas' statement said. "Israel must understand there is no military solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict."

Abbas was scheduled to meet later with members of militant groups to discuss a new cease-fire, but it was unclear who would attend. Most militant leaders have gone underground to avoid being targeted by Israeli helicopter gun ships, which circled over Gaza most of the day.

Israeli leaders maintain that Abbas has failed to live up to his commitments by not dismantling the militant groups.

Arafat remained in the limelight by telling wire services that he would crack down on Hamas and Islamic Jihad if Israel refrained from major military actions. He also urged the militant groups to reinstate the cease-fire.

Israeli officials warned that they would not deal with a new prime minister beholden to Arafat, such as parliament speaker Abu Ala, who has been talked about as a possible successor to Abbas.

Erekat, a close confident of Arafat, predicted that Abbas would survive and cautioned that the peace plan known as the road map can only go forward with Abbas because of support from the United States.

"I think that Abbas has an overloaded wagon, but I really think we should support him," Erekat said. "I wouldn't say his cabinet is in danger. He is under fire, and he faces internal complexities. The Palestinian Authority is going through a difficult transition."

Saleh said he opposed Abbas because he didn't think that negotiating with Israel would work. Instead, he wanted Abbas to strip militant groups of their weapons and lead peaceful protest marches to Israeli checkpoints.