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Elbowed over, Arafat still reigns

A new Palestinian cabinet faced a vote of approval Tuesday.

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Palestinian legislators convened Tuesday to confirm their first prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, in answer to US and Israeli demands for political reform.

The US and Israel hope the meeting will begin the process of phasing Yasser Arafat out of Palestinian political life. But Mr. Arafat's entrance into parliament with Mr. Abbas - his choice for premier - and his strong influence over the cabinet signals that for now the aging guerrilla remains not only kingmaker but king.

"Arafat continues to wield considerable authority," says Yossi Alpher, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

"Many of his people are in the emerging government and he has control over the security services. He's clearly not irrelevant."

Abbas's confirmation will trigger renewed US efforts to establish peace here, President Bush said last week. "I will work hard to achieve a two-state solution," Mr. Bush told TV journalist Tom Brokaw. "I will push and push."

After Abbas's confirmation, the US will publish a peace plan called the "road map," which outlines steps to the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005.

This renewed US commitment to the conflict here creates a dilemma for Palestinians. Officials here say that the harder the US works to sideline Arafat, the more public support he receives. And yet Arafat's continued influence is an impediment to US involvement and to the road map's chances of success.

"The Palestinians have to put forward someone other than Arafat if there's the slightest chance that the US will use its influence to act on the road map and more specifically if the US will use its influence to get the government of [Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon to move on the road map," says Henry Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "Only the US can make that happen."

Early Tuesday, before the Palestinian legislators met, events in the occupied territories underscored the difficulties ahead. In Gaza, missile fire from an Israel Defense Forces helicopter killed an official of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and a bystander.

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