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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

The New Arafat-Abu Mazen Cabinet: A Roadblock to Middle East Peace

Filed under: Peace Process, Terrorism, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 2, No. 25    April 24, 2003

  • Despite the formation of a new cabinet, Yasser Arafat remains the head of the Palestinian Authority, with powers over finances, security, and future negotiations.

  • Pro-Arafat forces dominate the new cabinet. Some 12-14 ministers are expected to be old Arafat appointees, while only 4-6 ministers will owe their loyalty to Abu Mazen.

  • Despite Abu Mazen’s control of the Preventive Security Organization, Arafat still commands other, larger security organizations.

  • Arafat refused to accept Abu Mazen’s demand that the armed factions of Fatah, like the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, be dismantled.

  • A diplomatic breakthrough in peace-making remains unlikely, especially with Yasser Arafat still in power and pulling the strings of government.


President Bush revolutionized U.S. policy regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict on June 24, 2002, when he declared that a “new and different Palestinian leadership” was required and that the Palestinians must elect “new leaders, leaders not compromised by terror.” Israel had uncovered incontrovertable evidence, months earlier, that Yasser Arafat, the head of the Palestinian Authority, had authorized, in his own handwriting, payments to those who organized suicide bombings against Israeli civilians; he had dispatched emissaries to Iraq and Iran, and had purchased weapons from Iran that were intercepted by Israel aboard the Karine-A in the Red Sea. Given this background, Bush concluded: “Today, Palestinian authorities are encouraging, not opposing, terrorism.”

In order to rectify the situation, President Bush insisted that new Palestinian leaders “engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists.” It would not be sufficient for the new Palestinian security forces to just foil attacks against Israel. Bush demanded that they “dismantle their infrastructure” before the U.S. would back the establishment of a Palestinian state.

With the Egyptian-brokered agreement between Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) over the formation of a new Palestinian cabinet, it becomes necessary to give a preliminary assessment as to whether the Palestinian government that is being formed will be able to fulfill the U.S. policy requirements established by President Bush. What are the chances that the new Palestinian government will constitute a real break from the past?

For Israel, the litmus test of the new Palestinian government will be its readiness to fight terrorism, instead of supporting it as it had done in the past. There are a number of reasons for skepticism about this new regime:

  • Yasser Arafat Remains the Head of the Palestinian Authority
    Rather than choosing new leaders who replace those who were “compromised by terror,” the Palestinians have created the new position of Palestinian prime minister, to be filled by Abu Mazen, who will share powers with Arafat. Yet Arafat will still control many aspects of Palestinian finances, negotiating strategy, and security organs (see below). Moreover, Abu Mazen is being presented as the American choice for a Palestinian leader, making it difficult for him to sideline Arafat at a later stage, using Palestinian institutions or the Palestinian street. Palestinian public opinion polls reveal that Arafat is considerably more popular than Abu Mazen (35 percent to 3 percent).1

  • Pro-Arafat Forces Remain Dominant in the New Palestinian Cabinet
    Arafat has succeeded in retaining powerful ministers in the new Palestinian cabinet. Pro-Arafat ministers include Saeb Erakat, Nabil Shaath, and Yasser Abd Rabbo. Moreover, Abd Rabbo has been given responsibility for future negotiations with Israel, which means Arafat still holds onto significant authority in this sensitive field. It is expected that Abu Mazen will be appointing 4-6 ministers in the new cabinet, while 12-14 ministers will come from the previous Arafat-appointed cabinet.2

  • Despite Abu Mazen’s Control of the Preventive Security Organization, Arafat Still Commands Other, Larger Security Organizations
    Abu Mazen succeeded in bringing his own protege, Muhammad Dahlan, into his cabinet. But there are still a large number of redundant security services in the Palestinian Authority that owe their loyalty to Arafat. The General Intelligence Organization of Tawfiq Tirawi, as well as the uniformed Palestinian security forces of Haj Ismail (West Bank) and Abd al-Razak al-Majaida (Gaza Strip), are together much larger than Dahlan’s Preventive Security Organization. Last June, President Bush insisted that the Palestinian security services be reformed and that they have a “unified chain of command.” This has not occurred; the other security services have not been disbanded.

  • Arafat Refused to Accept Abu Mazen’s Demand that the Armed Factions of Fatah, like the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, be Dismantled
    Outside of the Palestinian Authority, Arafat still controls armed groups like the Tanzim of the Fatah movement and the elite “al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades,” both of which have engaged in terrorism against Israel.3 Moreover, Arafat still controls Palestinian funds that enable him to financially maintain these groups.

Abu Mazen’s appointment as Palestinian prime minister is significant largely because he at least has openly expressed his opposition to Yasser Arafat’s strategy of employing terrorism as a political instrument to advance Palestinian political aims. Yet in a March 3, 2003, interview, it should be pointed out, he still justified “armed struggle” against Israeli civilians over the “green line.” Moreover, Abu Mazen still has hard-line political positions on Palestinian-Israeli final status issues such as the “right of return,” borders, and Jerusalem. Israeli negotiators during the Barak government recall that Abu Mazen was not a positive force at the failed 2000 Camp David summit. It would be a mistake to assume he is sympathetic to the Israeli view. In fact, back in 1983, just a decade before he signed the Oslo agreements, he wrote a Holocaust-denial book entitled: The Other Side: The Secret Relationship between Nazism and the Zionist Movement.4 It is doubtful that Abu Mazen, alone, can or will implement the necessary changes in Palestinian policy that President Bush demanded last June.

Abu Mazen’s key ally in security affairs, Muhammad Dahlan, also has a checkered past when it comes to security issues. His deputy, Rashid Abu Shabak, was responsible for a bomb attack on an Israeli school bus in Kfar Darom in November 2000.

Nevertheless, the U.S. reportedly intends to publish the “Quartet” roadmap for Israeli-Palestinian peace after Abu Mazen’s cabinet is approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council. The roadmap represents an effort on the part of the European Union, the UN, Russia, and the U.S. to draft a joint policy for implementing President Bush’s June 24 vision. It is surprising that the U.S., at this stage, is incorporating European, Russian, and UN positions in its policy on Israel and the Palestinians after all three just failed to deal properly with the crisis over Iraq.

The Quartet will undoubtedly water down President Bush’s demands on the Palestinian leadership and suggest that Israel make premature concessions before the Palestinians fully live up to their security commitments. Should Israel pull back from Palestinian cities prior to a demonstrable effort on the part of the Palestinian government to uproot terrorism, then an escalation of terrorist attacks against Israelis could be the result.

The best outcome that can be realistically hoped for after the appointment of Abu Mazen as Palestinian prime minister would be an Israeli-Palestinian ceasefire. But a diplomatic breakthrough in peace-making remains unlikely, especially with Yasser Arafat still in power and pulling the strings of government.

The appointment of the new Abu Mazen cabinet thus will not automatically lead to new Israeli-Palestinian understandings. Only after the Palestinian security organizations demonstrate a sustained fight against terrorism should reciprocal actions on the part of Israel be expected, regardless of the language of the Quartet’s roadmap.

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1. Khaled Abu Toameh, “Palestinian ‘Street’ Supports Arafat in Showdown with Abbas,” Jerusalem Post, April 23, 2003.
2. Arnon Regular, Aluf Benn, Amos Harel, and Natan Gutman, “Abu Mazen Assembles a Government with Arafat’s Agreement,” Ha’aretz, April 24, 2003.
3. Arnon Regular, “Arafat Rejects Plan by Abu Mazen to Disarm Fatah Militia,” Ha’aretz, April 22, 2003.
4. Robert S. Wistrich, “Muslim Anti-Semitism: A Clear and Present Danger,” American Jewish Committee;