Palestinians OK post of premier

Legislators dilute power of Arafat, but less than U.S., Israel had sought

March 11, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian legislators began wresting power away from their leader, Yasser Arafat, yesterday and giving it to the newly created post of prime minister, in response to pressure from the United States and because of the stalemate in the conflict with Israel.

During a stormy session that went into the night, members of the Palestinian Legislative Council approved the position of prime minister, some hailing the moment as nothing short of revolutionary, and then defined the position's powers.

But instead of relegating Arafat to a ceremonial role, as was urged by the United States and Israel, the legislators left significant powers in his hands, including the authority to conduct negotiations with Israel and oversight of Palestinian security forces.

Arafat, an enduring symbol of Palestinian nationalism known for his survival skills, had agreed reluctantly to appoint a prime minister, and he must approve the bill for it to become law.

His nominee, Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, would have three weeks to form a new government, but officials said that task could be completed and voted on much sooner.

The legislature's actions yesterday marked the first time it had limited Arafat's power. Under the legislation's provisions, Arafat would cede to the prime minister oversight of the internal workings of the Palestinian Authority and authority to appoint Cabinet ministers and oversee internal police matters.

Arafat would be able to fire the prime minister and would remain commander in chief of the security forces.

"The prime minister will be caught between two fires," said Ziad Abu Amr, a legislator from Gaza. "The president will try to keep as much power as possible, and the council will be inclined to give the prime minister as much power as possible in order to extract the Palestinians from our crisis."

Palestinian officials said Abbas, as secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, would continue to have a significant role in peace talks but that the final say in any decisions belongs to Arafat.

Abbas, 67, is an outspoken critic of the armed uprising against Israel and was the architect of an interim peace accord that established the Palestinian Authority. He has met with top Israeli leaders after they cut off contacts with Arafat.

Daniel C. Kurtzer, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, indicated before the legislature voted that U.S. officials, who have shunned Arafat, expect the new prime minister to be actively involved in any negotiations.

"He should be empowered and willing to help move the Palestinians from violence to peace," Kurtzer said after meeting with Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom in Jerusalem. "This would be a very welcome step in our view."

Israeli officials, who have labeled Arafat an "obstacle to peace" and declared him irrelevant, remained cautious. Shalom said the creation of the new post was a positive step but that the central issues are the "powers that will be granted."

For Arafat, relinquishing even a small amount of authority has proved difficult. He is known for approving the smallest of details, has never named or endorsed a successor, and rebukes even close aides who he feels might be angling for his job.

Yesterday, he convened the Palestinian Legislative Council at his headquarters in Ramallah and delivered a nearly hourlong speech that was strikingly similar to one he delivered in the same place Saturday, to much the same audience.

Though the topic of the day was the prime minister, Arafat didn't mention that post until near the end of his address, and then in a fleeting way. He spent most of his time criticizing Israel for its military actions in the West Bank and Gaza, and accused the international community of undermining peace prospects by ignoring the actions by the Israeli army.

Arafat admitted to being tired, but he seemed unenthusiastic, and uneasy, about nominating someone whom some have openly discussed as his possible successor.

Lawmakers painstakingly went down a list highlighting the responsibilities of Arafat that would shift to the new prime minister. In one vote, the legislative body decided to change the Arabic term rais (president) to prime minister in various clauses of the basic law.

Abdul Jawad Saleh, an outspoken critic of Arafat from Ramallah, urged that the prime minister be given as much power as possible. "The president of the Palestinian National Authority is a symbol," he said, daring to use the words of Israel to describe his leader.

That earned a sharp rebuke from Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat, who reminded the legislators that "Arafat is the elected president and not just a symbol." It was a not-too-subtle reminder that Arafat remains firmly in charge.

Outside the chambers, Mustafa Barghouti, a leading proponent of democratic reform, called yesterday's vote "redistributing power within the same old power structure. There has to be a clear separation between the president and the prime minister. It's too little too late."

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