Cover Story

No guarantees

New Palestinian prime minister Ahmed Qureia takes office with little power to tamp down rapidly escalating tensions-high even by Middle East standards. Clearly, his predecessor's failure shows that however much the peacemakers dream of keeping Yasser Arafat under wraps, he's never far from the surface

Issue: "Arafat: The devil you know," Sept. 20, 2003

Ahmed Qureia wanted guarantees. What he got was gore. The speaker of the Palestinian parliament, tapped by Yasser Arafat to form a new government on Sept. 7, held out for four days before reluctantly accepting the post. After watching the self-immolation of his predecessor, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Qureia had a list of stipulations. He wanted guarantees that Israel would stop building settlements on Arab land, stop building a security fence, stop locking down Palestinian cities. He wanted guarantees that the United States would hold Israel accountable, move the peace plan forward, and stop its isolation of Mr. Arafat.

Without these guarantees, Mr. Qureia would refuse the job: "These are my conditions from all the parties who are concerned about the peace process."

But in the politics of the world's most troubled region, there are no guarantees, and promises are made to be broken. The promise of peace under a U.S.-brokered "road map," for instance, looks like nothing more than a cruel joke after weeks of bloody back-and-forth attacks. The escalating violence forced the resignation of Mr. Abbas, who was hailed just four months ago as the best hope for peace in the Middle East.

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Mr. Abbas's successor gave up on guarantees after a brutal day that saw two suicide bombings and a retaliatory air strike. He hurriedly accepted the prime ministry, condemned the latest Israeli bombing, and promised to name a cabinet within hours. But even as he took over the reins, the Palestinian Authority seemed to be galloping toward a precipice. Israeli officials said the Palestinian government had lost total control and hinted at all-out war in the Gaza Strip. Meanwhile, the militant Islamist group Hamas warned that no Israelis were safe, even in their own homes.

For the new Palestinian leader, the job seems impossible. With both sides on high alert, Mr. Qureia must appease the Israelis and Americans without appearing to do their bidding, crack down on Islamic militants without provoking civil war, and prove his independence from Mr. Arafat without alienating the popularly elected leader.

By week's end it appeared he was all but guaranteed to fail.

The accession of Mr. Qureia couldn't have been more different from that of his predecessor, Mr. Abbas. The former prime minister was hand-picked by the Israelis and Americans to provide a counterweight to Mr. Arafat, with whom Israeli officials refused to negotiate. Although Mr. Abbas was the second-ranking leader in Mr. Arafat's own Fatah party, relations between the two men were chilly at best. Indeed, Mr. Arafat initially refused to appoint a prime minister, fearing a newcomer would usurp his power.

In the end, international pressure proved too strong to resist. With Russia, the European Union, and the United States all plugging the road map to peace, Mr. Arafat was forced to accept a prime minister as a condition for implementing the peace plan. Almost immediately Mr. Abbas seemed to make unprecedented progress, winning high-level meetings with Israeli officials and a cease-fire from Islamic militants.

What he never won, however, was control of the Palestinian security forces, which remained loyal to Mr. Arafat. When violent fringe groups violated the cease-fire, Mr. Abbas had no military options for bringing them into line. Without a Palestinian response, Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) took matters into their own hands, conducting retaliatory raids throughout the West Bank and Gaza Strip. That, in turn, led to more reprisals from the Palestinians, and the cease-fire slowly disintegrated.

The spiral of violence hurt the prime minister's credibility as an agent of law and order-surely the result that his rival Mr. Arafat had hoped for. The beginning of the end came on Aug. 21 when Israeli forces assassinated senior Hamas leader Ismail Abu Shanab to avenge a Jerusalem bus bombing that took 22 lives. Several more assassinations followed as the pressure on Mr. Abbas mounted, threatening to spill over into a Palestinian civil war. Leaders of Hamas charged that the prime minister was an American puppet, and Mr. Arafat seemed content to let his No. 2 twist in the wind. With little support from either the Palestinian mainstream or the radical fringe, Mr. Abbas tendered his resignation on Sept. 6, citing "harsh and dangerous domestic incitement" against his government.

Mr. Arafat surprised many international observers by quickly accepting the resignation, and Mr. Qureia's name surfaced almost at once as a replacement. Palestinian hardliners gloated: "We believe the creation of this [Abbas] government was a strategic mistake because it was the result of foreign pressure and therefore its failure was inevitable," senior Hamas leader Abdul Aziz al-Rantissi told the French Press Agency.


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