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Abbas resigns; Mideast peace plan near collapse

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian prime minister, tendered his resignation yesterday, citing interference by Yasser Arafat and insufficient support from Israel, the United States, and Palestinians. The decision left Washington's Middle East peace effort teetering on the verge of collapse.

Although Abbas, who enjoys wide support in the United States but little popularity at home, had signaled lately that he might quit the post he accepted only four months ago, the announcement at noon surprised many Palestinians, Israelis, and US officials and plunged Palestinian politics into turmoil. It also cast doubt over the future of peace talks, as Israel refuses to deal with Arafat or any Palestinian leader it views as his proxy.

Hours after the resignation, Israeli warplanes dropped bombs on a meeting in Gaza City attended by leaders of the militant group Hamas, including its founder and spiritual leader, Sheik Ahmed Yassin, heightening the feeling of crisis in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank and drawing furious calls for revenge. Yassin, who had been in hiding since last month and who is confined to a wheelchair, was among 15 people slightly wounded.

Legislators said Arafat, the elected leader of the Palestinian Authority, had accepted Abbas's resignation and under Palestinian law has three weeks to name a new prime minister. It was unclear last night whether Arafat had confirmed the action in writing, as required by law.

Arafat was scheduled to meet with leaders of his Fatah movement and legislators today to consider the next move. Some analysts speculated he might tap Abbas again for the job and offer him more authority, but advisers to the outgoing prime minister said his decision was final.

Israel, in a statement issued by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office, described the resignation as "an internal Palestinian matter" but said it would "not countenance a situation in which control of the Palestinian leadership reverts back to Yasser Arafat or someone who does his bidding." The Bush administration said it was determined to continue with the "road map" for peace but would not back down from its refusal to work with Arafat, who it says is an obstacle to the efforts.

"At this critical moment, it is important that all parties consider carefully the consequences of their actions," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said in a statement.

Still, the impact of the announcement was unmistakable. Palestinian Cabinet minister Yasser Abed Rabbo, speaking to reporters after Abbas explained to legislators during a two-hour closed-door session in Ramallah why he decided to quit, said, "This is a national crisis."

Abed Rabbo blamed Israel for the crisis and said Sharon's "repeated violations" of the road map made it impossible for Abbas to succeed as prime minister.

But others who attended the meeting said Abbas, 68, widely known as Abu Mazen, explained his resignation mainly in terms of the power struggle he waged with Arafat and the difficulty of reining in Islamic militants responsible for a long spree of suicide attacks against Israel.

"He only talked about internal [Palestinian] matters. He did not mention external issues," Jamal Shati, a legislator from the West Bank town of Jenin, said in an interview outside the Parliament building.

Shati said Abbas, whom Arafat appointed in April under pressure from Washington, protested in the meeting over Arafat's refusal to cede control of most Palestinian security agencies and his meddling in government appointments.

Several legislators said the tipping point for Abbas was a violent demonstration Thursday in which activists of his Fatah party rampaged at a Parliament meeting and called him a traitor.

Some Palestinians expressed concern that Israel would now expel Arafat from the West Bank, a measure several Israeli Cabinet ministers support but which Washington has so far vetoed.

Israel's deputy minister for commerce and trade, Michael Ratzon, said the government should now feel free to deal harshly with Arafat. "He has to be eliminated," Ratzon said in an interview, although he did not specify what action should be taken.

Abbas served for decades as Arafat's soft-spoken deputy in the Palestine Liberation Organization. But while the two men have similar political demands from Israel -- a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza -- Abbas has distinguished himself by being sharply critical of Palestinian violence.

That position made him widely acceptable in Washington and in Israel, where officials believe Arafat has been duplicitous and have largely shunned him. But the more praise the United States and Israel heaped on Abbas, the more suspect he became in the eyes of Palestinians.

In his brief tenure as prime minister, Abbas's approval rating never topped a few percentage points.

During a speech to Parliament on Thursday, Abbas cited a cease-fire he coaxed from Hamas and other militant groups as the main accomplishment of his young government, along with financial reforms and some Israeli troop pullbacks in the West Bank and Gaza.

But most of those achievements were undone in recent weeks. The cease-fire, which proved widely popular among Palestinians, crumbled last month when Hamas killed 22 people in a bus bombing, in response to a series of Israeli strikes on Palestinian fugitives. As a result, Israeli troops reerected crippling roadblocks in Gaza and some areas of the West Bank.

Members of Hamas greeted the resignation with approval.

"I believe the first mistake was the establishment of this government because it was the result of external pressures," said Abdel Aziz Rantisi, a Hamas leader in Gaza. "It was not the result of Palestinian will and Palestinian interests."

Rantisi was one of several Hamas leaders attending a meeting yesterday in the city when Israeli F-16s struck with three 500-pound bombs, according to an Israeli security official. The attack damaged the third floor of a multistory building where the group -- which also included Mohammed Deif, a top member of the group's military wing -- had congregated.

The security official said intelligence officials became aware of the meeting early yesterday and the timing of the attack had nothing to do with Abbas's resignation. "It was a rare operational opportunity" to get several Hamas leaders in one strike, the official said on condition of anonymity.

No one was killed. Israeli officials said the strike failed because its planners were worried about killing bystanders.

Israel has targeted Hamas militants for assassination throughout the three years of fighting between the two sides but added the group's political leaders to the list only in recent months. One of them, Ismail Abu Shanab, was killed two days after last month's Hamas bombing in Jerusalem.

Ismail Hanieh, another Hamas official who took part in yesterday's meeting, said revenge would be taken against Israel soon.

"If [Sharon] thinks F-16s will break the backs of Hamas, he is wrong," Hanieh said.

Correspondents Sa'id Ghazali and Alon Tuval contributed to this report from Jerusalem. Material from the Associated Press was included.

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