'Back me or sack me,' Abu Mazen tells Palestinians

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The Independent Online

The embattled Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen yesterday issued a scarcely veiled resignation threat as 18 of his critics served formal notice that they wanted to subject him to a confidence vote.

Abu Mazen, regarded by the US and Israel as the only viable interlocutor for peace negotiations, came out fighting in a "back me or sack me" speech designed to beat off the challenge to his authority posed by the PLO chairman, Yasser Arafat.

In a speech that criticised militant factions for playing into the hands of Israeli intransigence, he pointedly reminded the 83 legislators that he had no intention of clinging to a job which he said was a "hard task, some would say an impossible one" without a clear mandate from them.

He added: "Either you provide the resources to support it and are committed to it, or you take it back. I will back any decision you make, and I will work at any level to serve the Palestinian people. That is part of the democratic life we have chosen and is irreversible."

In a demonstration outside the parliament building, about 200 Fatah activists protested in support of Mr Arafat. Seven masked men - thought to be members of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs' Brigade, a militant faction linked to Fatah - smashed windows and a door before being forced from the building by unarmed guards. The brigade had claimed responsibility for killing an Israeli soldier near the West Bank City of Jenin shortly before the session.

Abu Mazen, formally known as Mahmoud Abbas, acknowledged his differences with Mr Arafat. But he made only oblique reference to his struggle to wrest control of the Palestinian security services from him, saying that the basic law governing the authority had to be respected.

He may go further when he addresses the Legislative Council in closed session tomorrow. The council will hold another meeting on Tuesday, when it may consider the call for a confidence vote. Mr Arafat's supporters are thought to have been under instructions not to support a no-confidence vote, which could precipitate the collapse of any negotiations and possibly the expulsion of the PLO chairman.

The office of Israel's Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, declined to comment on Abu Mazen's speech last night. But one analysis in official circles is that Mr Arafat does not want Abu Mazen to quit before the US elections in 2004, when the PLO chairman believes - vainly in the view of Israeli officials-- he may be able to capitalise on a new international atmosphere to restore his position as Palestinian interlocutor.

Even if a confidence vote looked like being defeated, the tone of the Prime Minister's speech suggests he is no mood for compromise, and is serious about resigning if he fails to get his way. One Abu Mazen supporter said the struggle was between "democracy and the old outdated ways".

In a skillfully crafted speech, Abu Mazen, facing haemorrhaging support among rank-and-file Palestinians, was careful to acknowledge the supremacy of the PLO in the "leadership of the Palestinian people" and condemn the continuing siege of Mr Arafat's headquarters in this West Bank city. He also claimed that Israel was undermining the fragile six-week ceasefire after being put in "an embarrassing position" by the Bush administration's criticisms of its settlement programme andthe fence designed to separate the occupied territories from Israel.

But he attacked factional violence - which on 19 August claimed the lives of 21 people in aJerusalem suicide bombing - as counter-productive.

Slogans painted on walls in Ramallah by Abu Mazen's opponents declared "We will not accept a Karzai in Palestine" after it was reported that Mr Arafat had compared him to the US-backed Afghan leader: "I am not Mullah Omar, but he is for sure the [Hamid] Karzai of Palestine."

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