RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat yesterday nominated a widely respected political moderate to serve as his government's first prime minister, which he said proves that he is serious about instituting reforms.
Arafat named Mahmoud Abbas, widely known by his nom de guerre Abu Mazen, during a speech to the Palestine Liberation Organization's 122-member central council, which endorsed the selection. Arafat said it represents "comprehensive reform in all aspects" and answers demands made by critics, including Israel and the United States.
Mazen, Arafat's deputy in the PLO, did not speak at the meeting and has not accepted the post, choosing to wait for a debate scheduled for tomorrow by the Palestinian Legislative Council, during which the scope of the prime minister's duties are to be defined.
That is when the real battle, and test, is expected. Arafat has been historically reluctant to relinquish his authority, and when pressed to make change, as he is now by various world leaders, he has found ways to maneuver to remain firmly entrenched and in control.
But pressure is growing. "Declarations will not help," said Serguei N. Peskov, the Russian representative to the Palestinian Authority and a member of an international consortium trying to advance a peace plan to end the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians.
"Mazen is the right man for the job," Peskov said. "He is a major figure coming at this very sensitive moment in Palestinian history. I hope that the leaders here will find a way to satisfy the Palestinians and the outside world."
The PLO council met against a backdrop of escalating violence between Israelis and Palestinians. Hours before, missiles were launched from two Israeli helicopter gun ships in Gaza, destroying a car and killing a key leader of the military wing of the group Hamas, along with three of his bodyguards.
The latest targeted killing of a man whom Israeli security sources blamed for the deaths of 28 of its citizens, and whom Hamas described as a political leader, further inflamed tensions on the streets of Gaza City, where tens of thousands of mourners took to the streets vowing revenge and threatening to "cut off 100 heads in return for the death of our martyr."
In Ramallah, Arafat again urged armed factions for a cease-fire to "spare our people the mad plans of the Israeli government," and he called upon help from the international community to "lift the Israeli siege and our suffering and move the peace process forward."
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has called Arafat an "obstacle to peace" and vowed to resume negotiations only after he is removed from power. Israeli officials were reserved yesterday, saying "actions, not words" will be the true test of Palestinian reform.
In choosing the 67-year-old Mazen, Arafat picked an independent thinker with whom he has quarreled in the past and who gave a speech last year calling the armed uprising "a historic mistake."
The silver-haired Mazen keeps a low profile and is viewed as aloof on the Palestinian street. But he is well known and liked within political circles as one of the pioneers of the Fatah Party, which Arafat heads, and is regarded as the behind-the-scenes brainchild of the PLO.
He was born in what is now northern Israel and became a refugee when the Jewish state was created in 1948. He went to Syria and became involved in Palestinian politics, and returned to the West Bank in 1995. He is married with two children and runs an advertising agency and a construction company.
Mazen was one of the first and most senior PLO members to recognize Israel and lead peace talks that resulted in the Oslo Accords in 1993. The accords established the Palestinian Authority, which gave Palestinians autonomy over several cities in the West Bank and Gaza.
Palestinian cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told reporters that Arafat and Mazen could work out a power-sharing agreement. "We hope that we will have a prime minister who is credible and empowered," Erekat said, calling the day a "turning point" in Palestinian affairs.
Other Palestinian officials said the powers of Arafat and Mazen would inevitably overlap, but said differences could be resolved by parameters established by the legislative council. But many doubted that Mazen would have true independence.
Mohammed Kudwa, the PLO's representative to the United Nations, said that the position of prime minister "will be a respected post within the presidential system."
Others pressed for real change. "We want the prime minister to have real power," said Nabil Amro, a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council.
In his speech, Arafat only briefly mentioned Mazen after spending 45 minutes railing against Israel for its stepped-up military campaign and what he called the "indifference" shown by the world.