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THE WORLD

Arafat Picks New Premier

Ahmed Korei is a moderate Palestinian lawmaker with views similar to Abbas'.

September 08, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

JERUSALEM — Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat on Sunday picked Ahmed Korei, the speaker of the Palestinian parliament and a key architect of the Oslo peace accords, as the new prime minister, replacing Mahmoud Abbas, who had quit the day before after a drawn-out power struggle.

In moving swiftly to settle the succession question, Arafat may be seeking to lessen the likelihood of Israeli reprisal for his role in ousting Abbas. Several senior Israeli politicians, including Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, renewed calls Sunday for Arafat to be expelled from the Palestinian territories, citing what they described as his destructive effect on peace efforts.

If he agrees to accept the post, Korei would have up to five weeks to form a Cabinet, and would then need to present his government to lawmakers for their approval.

Abbas' resignation was a blow to the Bush administration and the government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and it was not yet known whether the rapid installation of a figure like Korei, a well-respected moderate whose views on the peace process are very similar to those of Abbas, would serve to mollify them.

Both the United States and Israel had regarded Abbas as a crucial party in the U.S.-backed peace initiative known as the "road map," and both have refused to have anything to do with Arafat. Israel already has said it would not negotiate with a new government dominated directly or indirectly by the Palestinian Authority president.

The State Department had no immediate comment, but earlier Sunday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that whoever takes over as Palestinian Authority prime minister "has to have political authority and the determination to go after terrorism.

"If that person does not make a solid commitment to follow the road map, go after terrorism and stop these terrorist attacks, then it's not clear that we'll be able to move forward," Powell said on ABC's "This Week."

An Israeli government spokesman refused to address the question of whether Israel would agree to have dealings with Korei, saying it would be premature to comment until the terms under which he was to serve became clear.

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The choice of Korei was first announced by Arafat to a general gathering of his Fatah faction early Sunday evening, then endorsed hours later by the policymaking bodies of both Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization, meeting in closed-door sessions.

Arafat "has designated Ahmed Korei as prime minister and received the unanimous approval" of the ruling bodies, his aide Nabil abu Rudaineh told reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah -- in effect making the nomination official.

Korei, who is also known as Abu Alaa, did not immediately say whether he would be willing to take the job but raised no objections when Arafat proposed him as the nominee, according to accounts by several Palestinian officials who were present at the Fatah meeting.

"He has no choice," said Abbas Zaki, a member of Fatah's policymaking Central Committee. "It's his duty."

At 65, Korei has a long history of cordial relations with Israeli officials. He was a participant in the secret, back-channel talks between Israel and the Palestinians in the early 1990s that culminated in the landmark Oslo interim peace accords. He has participated in almost all major Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations that have taken place since then.

"He's a very capable person, very astute," said Ron Pundak, who served as an Israeli negotiator for the 1993 Oslo pact and became well acquainted with Korei. "And his temperament is different than Abbas' -- he is a bit more of a fighter, more able to stand up for himself."

Even so, there was no guarantee that Korei would not face the same pitfalls that drove Abbas from office after a tenure of only four months -- most of those obstacles stemming from the lack of a power base separate from Arafat.

In contrast to Arafat, who is respected among Palestinians as a symbol of their struggle for statehood, Abbas had almost no popular following. Neither does Korei, who has kept a relatively low public profile despite serving as parliament speaker since 1996.

And Arafat has given no sign of relenting on the issue that finally drove Abbas to break with him in frustration -- his continuing control over much of the Palestinian security apparatus.

Still, Korei has shown himself to be more politically adept than the uncharismatic Abbas.

As the squabbling between Arafat and Abbas intensified and the two stopped talking altogether, Korei served as a go-between. But several Palestinian officials said that, even as he tried to paper over the rift, he sent signals to Arafat that he would be willing to step in as prime minister if the two could not come to terms.

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