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Abbas to address parliament amid struggle
( 2003-09-04 11:43) (Agencies)

Palestinian officials struggled to ease tension between Yasser Arafat and his prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, while Israel and the United States cautioned against any move to oust Abbas.

Palestinian Parliament Speaker Ahmed Qureia is shown in the West Bank town of Ramallah Wednesday, in this Sept 11, 2002 file photo. Postponing a showdown, the Palestinian parliament speaker temporarily blocked a confidence vote Wednesday Sept 3, 2003 that was sought by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas in his power struggle with Yasser Arafat.   [AP]
The prime minister was set to address parliament Thursday to sum up his first 100 days in office, a period marked by somewhat reduced violence but also disappointment over a lack of movement in implementing the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.

Saying the legislature shouldn't be dragged into the power struggle between Abbas and Arafat, parliament speaker Ahmad Qureia on Wednesday temporarily blocked a confidence vote that Abbas had sought to call following his address.

If a vote is held in the coming days, the U.S.-backed Abbas could be toppled, dealing a heavy blow to efforts to end three years of violence and move toward Palestinian statehood. The prime minister has minimal support among Palestinians, many of whom say they distrust him because he has Israel's backing.

But legislators said a confidence vote now is not expected for at least another week. In the meantime, parliament will try to help end the wrangling between Arafat and Abbas over authority, particularly control of the security forces.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, meanwhile, said in Washington that Arafat whom the U.S. and Israel have sought to isolate "has not been playing a helpful role."

"If he wanted to play a helpful role he would be supporting Prime Minister Abbas, not frustrating his efforts," Powell said.

Israel has warned of dire consequences should Abbas be ousted, saying it will not do business with a government hand-picked by Arafat. Several Palestinian legislators said they were told by local U.S. diplomats that if Abbas is ousted, Washington might lower its profile as Mideast mediator.

Abbas has told a senior Palestinian official he wants Thursday's debate to be followed by a confidence vote, but he has not made a formal request and has declined public comment.

Winning parliament's support would help Abbas in his confrontation with Arafat, who is accused by Israel of fomenting terrorism. Defeat would allow him to step down without being blamed for the consequences, such as the possible collapse of the road map.

The continued deadlock indicates each man needs the other. The international support enjoyed by Abbas helps shield Arafat from possible Israeli action, such as expulsion. Abbas, in turn, needs Arafat to provide legitimacy for his government among Palestinians.

"They depend on each other, kind of like an old couple that can't stand each other, but can't live apart," said Israeli analyst Mark Heller.

Qureia said there is no need, for now, to hold a confidence vote in parliament because Abbas already won the legislators' confidence when his appointment was affirmed in April.

However, parliament will hold another session Sept. 10, and if Arafat and Abbas have not reached a power-sharing agreement by then, a confidence vote might be held, legislators said.

The power struggle has intensified in recent weeks.

Abbas demands that Arafat relinquish control of four security branches; Abbas commands the other four security services. Arafat has balked, fearing he would lose his main source of power.

Israel and the United States want Abbas to crack down on Hamas and other militant groups, as required by the road map. Israel's Cabinet decided earlier this week to freeze implementation of the road map until Abbas orders a clampdown.

Ahead of the parliament session, Israel sent strong warnings to the Palestinians.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Israel won't negotiate with an Arafat-controlled government, and Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz warned on Tuesday that Israel may have to expel Arafat soon if he keeps getting in the way of peace efforts.

Mofaz spoke several days after Israeli security officials again reviewed a possible expulsion, and came to the conclusion that it would do more harm than good.

For nearly two years, Israeli troops and threats have kept Arafat marooned inside his West Bank headquarters, which has been heavily damaged by tank shells and bulldozers.

U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell "has made clear that Arafat is part of the problem at this point and is not helping to bring a solution."

Still, Boucher said Israel had informed the U.S. government there was no plan to expel Arafat and "our view was that was the right decision."

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