Abbas accepts as Arafat's premier

Appointment raises hopes for Palestinian reforms, new talks with Israel

March 20, 2003|By Joel Greenberg | Joel Greenberg,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

JERUSALEM - Mahmoud Abbas, a top Palestinian official who has criticized the use of arms in the uprising against Israel, accepted his appointment by Yasser Arafat as the first Palestinian prime minister yesterday, raising expectations for government reforms and a resumption of peace negotiations.

Abbas, 67, known as Abu Mazen, accepted the position after receiving a formal letter of appointment from Arafat charging him with the task of forming a Cabinet, Palestinian officials said. He has up to five weeks to select the advisers and submit their names to the Palestinian parliament for approval.

Rebuffing attempts by Arafat to limit the powers of the new position, the legislature ratified the post Tuesday, granting the prime minister authority to appoint and supervise the Cabinet - powers formerly held by Arafat.

The United States and Israel have refused to negotiate with Arafat, accusing him of involvement in violence. He had come under intense international pressure to appoint a prime minister to carry out reforms in the government and in security services as a step toward the resumption of peace talks.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, an adviser to Arafat, said that now that Abbas had accepted the appointment, the Bush administration should push a blueprint for Middle East peace known as the "road map," sponsored by the parties guiding peace efforts: the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia.

"We are asking the American administration and President Bush at this crucial time to work seriously not just to adopt, but to implement, the road map," Abu Rudeineh said. "It is the only hope that can be given to the area."

Bush said Friday that the plan would be published after the new Palestinian prime minister takes office.

Raanan Gissin, a spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, welcomed the appointment of Abbas, but said progress depends on his performance. "We have to see if he has the authority and capability to stop terrorist activity," Gissin said. "He has voiced his opinion against terrorist activity. If he continues in that direction, he definitely could be a partner for negotiations."

A co-founder with Arafat of the mainstream Fatah movement in the 1960s and Arafat's deputy in the Palestine Liberation Organization, Abbas has had a long and sometimes strained relationship with the Palestinian leader, shunning publicity and preferring to work behind the scenes, in marked contrast to Arafat. When Arafat named him the choice for prime minister, Abbas delayed accepting the post, waiting to see what powers it would have.

In recent months Abbas has spoken out against attacks on Israelis during the Palestinian uprising, asserting that the Palestinians had paid a heavy price for what he called the "militarization" of the conflict.

"Many people diverted the uprising from its natural path and embarked on a path we can't handle, with the use of weapons," he said at a closed meeting of Fatah activists in Gaza in October in remarks leaked by his office. "What happened in these two years, as we see it now, is a complete destruction of everything we built."

Abbas was an architect of the Oslo accords with Israel in 1993 and signed the agreement for the PLO on the White House lawn. He was a key figure in subsequent negotiations and maintained quiet contacts with Israeli leaders even during the past 30 months of conflict, meeting on one occasion with Sharon.

As prime minister he will have to navigate between Arafat's desire to maintain control of negotiations with Israel and the Palestinian security forces, and international expectations that he will overhaul those forces, stop attacks by militants and revive talks with the Israelis.

He will also have to show a skeptical Palestinian public that his appointment is more than a nod to external pressure, bringing substantial improvements in daily life and easing the pressures of Israeli occupation, said Ali Jarbawi, a professor of political science at Bir Zeit University.

"To establish credibility he has to deliver on internal matters," Jarbawi said. "This will make it or break it."

Joel Greenberg writes for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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