Abu Mazen struggles for survival after excessive American support

After a premiership of 100 days, Abu Mazen is being 'killed with kindness' by the White House and must reassert his authority

The Palestinian Prime Minister, Abu Mazen, will today launch a fight to reassert his authority in the face of mounting domestic criticism and a serious crisis in relations with Yasser Arafat which could threaten his survival.

At a meeting of the Palestinian Legislative Council, which will be closely watched in Washington, Abu Mazen is expected to seek the backing of its 83 members in his power struggle with Mr Arafat over the control of Palestinian security forces.

He will sum up his first 100 days in office at the Ramallah meeting. It was postponed from Monday after intense diplomatic pressure from the US, designed to ensure the meeting did not turn into a politically fatal test of confidence for Abu Mazen, who was sworn in April.

His position has been weakened by his deep personal and political differences with Mr Arafat, and by the fading of hopes for the peace process after the collapse of the ceasefire which had been in place since 29 June.

His problems have been intensified by what Israelis see as his failure to prevent militant attacks. Palestinians are unhappy about what they see as his failure to produce real improvements in their daily lives after the initial implementation of the "road-map", which envisages the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

After a confused day of politicking, sources close to Abu Mazen denied last night earlier reports that he intended to demand a vote of confidence from today's meeting, and would resign if he failed to secure it.

Although Nabil Amr, the Palestinian Information Minister, had been quoted as saying that was the course Abu Mazen would adopt, Ahmed Qureia, the council Speaker, said there would not be a vote of confidence and insisted that the council would not be turned "into a place of conflict" between the two Palestinian leaders.

The main focus of the conflict is the desire of Abu Mazen, backed by Israel and the US, to take over four of the multiple Palestinian security services which are still in Mr Arafat's control. The forces are one of the main sources of Mr Arafat's power now that finance has been largely put in the hands of Abu Mazen's government.

Most Palestinian politicians believe that Abu Mazen has been undermined by repeated declarations of support from the US and Israel. Both sides have alsoinsisted that Mr Arafat, the PLO chairman, be marginalised. This was exacerbated this week by calls from Shaul Mofaz, the Israeli Defence Minister, and Sylvan Shalom, the Foreign Minister, for the expulsion of Mr Arafat.

Mr Mofaz implied that Mr Arafat was the main obstacle to the road-map, and also to Abu Mazen's clampdown on militant attacks such as the Hamas suicide bombing which killed 20 Israeli civilians in Jerusalem just over two weeks ago.

Mr Arafat appeared to fuel international criticism yesterday when he was quoted by CNN as suggesting that the road-map was "dead" because of Israeli aggression.

Some Israeli analysts are sceptical about whether the calls for Mr Arafat's removal are realistic since, despite their deep differences, Abu Mazen would almost certainly face irresistible pressure to resign if Mr Arafat were expelled, with the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority a near certainty.

Hanan Ashrawi, a veteran Palestinian moderate politician who represents Jerusalem on the council, accused the US this week of "killing [Abu Mazen] with kindness". She said he needed to "understand he gains legitimacy from the people and not just from the Americans and the Israelis".

Ms Ashrawi said: "The Americans have to understand that when they attack Arafat, he gets more support; when they embrace Abbas he gets less".

She said Abu Mazen "could not do anything on his own without Mr Arafat" and that America's sidelining of the PLO chairman meant politicians now had to approach him through intermediaries.

After a week which has seen a series of "targeted" air strikes against Palestinian militants, Israel allowed 10,000 Palestinian labourers and 1,000 merchants from the Gaza Strip to enter Israel yesterday through the Erez crossing.

* Israeli fighter jets attacked a Hizbollah base in southern Lebanon yesterday.

Israeli army sources said that they had destroyed the artillery position which hours earlier had fired anti-aircraft shells in the western section of the northern border.

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