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Skeptics Await Palestinian Premier

The new post has been watered down, leaving key powers over security and international negotiations in the hands of Yasser Arafat.

March 15, 2003|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is expected to appoint a prime minister any day now, but that doesn't mean he'll satisfy the foreign mediators who pressured him into creating the job -- or that peace will be any closer.

International peace brokers pressed Arafat to name a prime minister in hopes of creating a strong, independent leader who could peel some of the authority away from the aging president. But vaguely worded legislation drafted this week by the Palestinian parliament failed to give a prime minister the two key powers that Europe, Israel and the United States most wanted to wrest from Arafat.

Security, including supervision of the various radical Palestinian factions, was left in the hands of the president. So were international negotiations. But neither Israel nor the United States will meet with Arafat, who is deemed by both nations to be complicit in terrorist attacks against the Jewish state.

The Palestinian lawmakers also agreed -- without debate -- that the prime minister, whom Arafat can hire or fire, would answer to the president.

And so it was with cynicism and skepticism that Israelis and Palestinians awaited the appointment.

"A U.S. and Zionist strategy," jeered a spokesman for the extremist Islamic Jihad. "Delusion," said Israeli analyst Hagai Segal. "Too early to tell," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Jonathan Peled.

"What the Israelis had in mind for the prime minister," said Palestinian Labor Minister Ghassan Khatib, "is completely different than what the Palestinians have in mind."

While President Bush gave a speech in Washington on Friday outlining U.S. plans for a "road map" for peace, British Prime Minister Tony Blair telephoned Arafat in the bombed-out shell of his Ramallah compound in the West Bank to assure him that Britain is working on the proposal.

According to aides, Arafat retorted that "adopting" a peace plan is meaningless. The international community should take real steps, Arafat said, such as forcing Israel to pull its troops out of the impoverished villages and ruined cities of the West Bank.

"We appreciate what President Bush has said, but we think the American administration can do much more," said Yasser Abed-Rabbo, the Palestinian culture and information minister. "They can interfere to put an end to this cycle of violence. They can put an end to this war of aggression by the Israeli government."

It was a complaint echoed by Palestinians throughout the week: What good does a prime minister do for a population facing curfews, military control and poverty? Israel -- whose troops killed 10 Palestinian militants in the 24 hours before Bush's speech -- says it must clamp down on the Palestinian people because terrorists lurk among civilians. But Palestinians are unimpressed by that argument.

"From the perspective of the average Palestinian, the whole exercise is funny," Khatib said. "You're talking about distribution of authority when you don't have any authority. The prime minister won't be able to do much about the Israeli occupation, the Israeli restrictions, the Israeli destruction of infrastructure."

Ever since foreign mediators talked Arafat out of appointing a political outsider who could be easily manipulated, there has been only one strong candidate for the job of prime minister: Mahmoud Abbas, known among Palestinians as Abu Maazen.

Abbas is an old-guard Palestinian leader -- a refugee who helped found the militant Fatah organization four decades ago. In the years of mayhem and negotiations that ensued, both he and his faction grew up. Fatah is the Palestinians' ruling party. Abbas, meanwhile, has grayed, gotten plumper -- and grown to view violence against the Israelis less favorably.

His insistence that Palestinians put an end to bloodshed has made Abbas the darling of international peace brokers. Since the current uprising began in September 2000, he's been the lone internal voice of power coaxing Palestinians to stop killing in the name of statehood. He has spent much of the last 10 years straining to broker a peace with Israel and has been internationally lauded for preaching nonviolence.

But some analysts argue that Abbas' eagerness for a cease-fire is born of pragmatism, not pacifism. Like many Palestinians, Abbas makes a moral distinction between attacks against the Jewish settlers who have seized land for their homesteads and the killing of civilians who live inside Israel's borders.

"We did not say that we are giving up the armed struggle," Abbas said in an interview published in the Asharq al Awsat newspaper this month. "Intifada must continue. If the Israelis came and settled themselves on your land, you would be [within your rights] to defend yourself using any means necessary."

The interview was posted on the Web site of the Israeli army -- until this week. After Israel offered official, albeit guarded, praise of Abbas, the posting was yanked.

But it remains to be seen whether Abbas will take the job. He has remained studiously noncommittal and, about the historic decision to create the post of prime minister, publicly silent. Arafat's aides have said Abbas is sure to take the job. But Abbas, who has been by turns ally and political foe to Arafat, has insisted that he wouldn't become prime minister unless he was granted real authority.

"I think Abu Maazen is a prominent, serious and veteran enough politician to know when it's worth his while assuming the job," Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Peled said. "If he comes to the conclusion that he's not given enough power, the Palestinians are not going to be achieving anything."

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