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Arafat Suggests a Rival as Premier

The Palestinian leader has alternately tangled and teamed with the moderate politician, who may be his greatest political threat.

March 09, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The two have squabbled and made up, traded stony silences, trafficked in machinations and negotiations. For decades, as their careers diverged and meshed, they have been nervous allies and sometime foes.

Yasser Arafat, the iconic, aging leader of the Palestinian people, has come to symbolize terrorism and corruption in Israel and has been cast off by the United States. Mahmoud Abbas, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Maazen, is a man with a revolutionary background but moderate inclinations. He is Arafat's deputy -- and his greatest political threat.

Their complicated relationship took another turn Saturday, when a pale Arafat asked the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization to appoint Abbas prime minister. It was a loaded moment -- the new prime minister could deplete the famously autocratic Arafat's authority. But in the end, Arafat had no choice.

Creating the post of prime minister was originally a Palestinian notion, part of a broad plan for reform. But outsiders -- Russia, the U.N., the U.S. and the European Union -- seized on the idea and pushed it forward.

"The international community desperately wants to see any change. They're hoping this might break the deadlock" of stalled peace talks, said Nasser Kidwa, the Palestinian representative to the United Nations.

Kidwa was among the Palestinian politicians gathered in the courtyard of Arafat's ruined compound here Saturday. Overhead, tattered plastic Palestinian flags flapped in the wind.

"The Israeli government wants this measure as a way to take away from Mr. Arafat's powers and eventually have him displaced," said Ziad abu Amr, head of the Palestinian Legislative Committee. "He's been monopolizing power in his hands all along."

Saturday's meeting was the first time the Palestinian lawmakers have gathered since September 2000, when the current Palestinian uprising began. Some of them hadn't left the Gaza Strip in months; Arafat has been confined to his compound for more than a year.

When Arafat climbed down the steps from his office to a courtyard packed with cameras, he clung to Abbas' arm and beamed. He made his way to a cavernous gallery, where in a rare public speech he read from the Koran, praised the "martyrs" who have died fighting for Palestinian statehood and cataloged the devastation faced by the Palestinians in the uprising.

But mostly, he railed against Israel. "It's no secret that the state of Israel is the basic instigator in the war against our brothers in Iraq," he said.

Finally, parenthetically, he suggested "naming my brother Mahmoud Abbas prime minister."

Over the years, Abbas and Arafat have clashed over the limits to Abbas' authority. They have lapsed in and out of speaking terms, and Arafat reportedly has accused Abbas of plotting to take his place.

But for all the pair's bickering, Palestinian ministers eager for deep reform say Abbas won't be much of a change from Arafat. Both are old-guard members of the Fatah movement, and Abbas has served as Arafat's No. 2, the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization's Executive Committee.

For Palestinians hoping for an overhaul, Abbas is a bit too close for comfort.

"He's part of -- I don't want to say mafia, but the group," said lawmaker Abdul Jawad Saleh. "I think we should have elections and change everything."

Abbas wasn't Arafat's first choice. Earlier, Arafat said he wanted to appoint Munib Masri, a politically noncommittal billionaire from the West Bank city of Nablus. But international mediators discouraged that idea. So did Fatah leaders, who urged Arafat to choose a candidate from the party's ranks.

In the end, only Abbas could satisfy both domestic and international demands.

A veteran peace negotiator, Abbas has won international acclaim by decrying the bloodshed caused by the Palestinian uprising. He has urged the Palestinians to end the "military intifada" -- to lay down their guns and go back to nonviolent demonstrations if they want to win statehood.

Abbas has not yet accepted the job of prime minister. Amid rumors that Arafat would do his best to create a puppet premier, Abbas has made it known that he won't accept the post unless he is promised a strong role. The legislature will meet Monday to debate the tasks assigned to the prime minister.

"I will be able to respond negatively or positively to President Arafat's proposal when it becomes clear what kind of authorities the prime minister will have," Abbas told the Associated Press.

Reminders of Palestinian disorder were everywhere Saturday. The meeting was held amid crushed cars, shattered concrete and toppled dormitories in Arafat's compound. Graffiti scrawled in English along the road to Arafat's headquarters read, "Palestine for Palestinians" and "Stop Occupation." Demonstrators outside hoisted signs demanding the release of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

"This is not a prime minister in an established country," Abu Amr said. "He'd be taking a job that's full of problems."

The World Bank recently noted that malnutrition in the Palestinian territories had reached levels found in Zimbabwe.

Meanwhile, Forbes magazine named Arafat one of the world's richest people.

"With a prime minister, it will be more of the same -- the same style, the same leadership," said Nabil Amr, minister of parliamentary affairs. "I don't think we should raise the expectations of the people."

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