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Arafat Says He Wants Prime Minister, but Likely Candidates for Post Are Coy

February 26, 2003
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As clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen escalated in recent weeks, the front-runners for the proposed post of Palestinian Authority prime minister have competed to project a moderate appearance.

Mahmoud Abbas, the second in command to PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, announced last weekend in Moscow that the Palestinian Authority would call for a suspension of all attacks against Israel for a year.

The statement was made on behalf of Palestinian Authority President Arafat, Abbas said, and was based on an Egyptian proposal promoted in Cairo during talks among the various Palestinian factions.

Many observers took Abbas’ statement as an attempt to show moderation in the face of the growing radicalization of radical Palestinian Islamic movements and elements within Arafat’s own Fatah party.

If Arafat does agree to international pressure to appoint a prime minister, the other leading contender is Finance Minister Salam Fayed.

In recent months, Fayed has met regularly on financial matters with Israeli officials, most notably Dov Weisglass, head of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s bureau.

American and Israeli officials have nothing but praise for Fayed — so much so that Sharon’s office leaked to the press that Fayed was Sharon’s preferred negotiating partner. That leak, of course, diminished Fayed’s prospects of getting the job.

What triggered the speculation over the two men’s political future was Arafat’s recent announcement that he would meet the international community’s demands for reform by appointing a prime minister.

It’s not clear, however, whether the United States, Israel and other nations minister would be satisfied. The demand was intended to ensure that real power passes from Arafat to someone more inclined to end Palestinian terrorism and make peace with Israel, but after reaping credit for the bold announcement Palestinian officials made clear — in Arabic — that the prime minister’s powers would be severely limited and that he would be subordinate to Arafat.

In any case, both of the presumed candidates for prime minister announced last week that they had no interest in the job.

“I’m not a candidate for this position,” Fayed told the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam from London, where he was attending talks between Palestinians, Israelis and international donors.

“Anyhow,” he added, “I would not be a candidate for any position that in any way runs contrary to the higher Palestinian interest and would weaken the authority of the elected president of the Palestinian people, Yasser Arafat.”

In other words, Fayed seemed to be saying, he would consider the position, but not as part of a plan to neutralize Arafat.

Abu Mazen, as Abbas is known, made a similar statement in Doha, the capital of Qatar.

So far Arafat has not said who would get the job or even when the position would be created — perhaps because Arafat wants to make sure that the person holding the position doesn’t forget who the real boss is.

The demand for a prime minister was first raised less than a year ago by some Palestinian influentials angered by the autocratic and corrupt nature of Arafat’s rule.

Members of the central council of Fatah, Arafat’s ruling party, suggested during the Israeli siege of Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah that he appoint Abbas as premier. The idea was raised as part of a continuous demand for reform, and as an elegant way to relieve the Israeli pressure on Arafat himself.

Still, rumor has it that Arafat was so furious when he read the document that he scribbled a remark on the paper: “The conspiracy continues.”

The popular demand for reform still exists, but it’s hardly likely Arafat will take the extra mile, for the simple reason that he understands the consequences: Even if Abbas were a yes-man, the appointment could set a precedent that could lead to Arafat’s eventual irrelevancy.

Abbas, 68, was born in Safed. He earned his bachelor’s degree in law from Damascus University and his doctorate in history from Moscow’s Oriental College.

Abbas fled to Syria after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, and in 1965 joined Fatah. He soon became a member of the group’s central committee and devoted himself full time to political work.

He returned to the Palestinian areas in July 1995 as a result of the Oslo Accords with Israel.

Though Abbas was a key figure in the Oslo talks and a signatory to the 1993 Declaration of Principles that launched the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, he mouthed radical views after the collapse of the Camp David talks in 2000, ruling out any Israeli presence in the West Bank or Gaza Strip and insisting that millions of Palestinian refugees and their descendants be granted a “Right of Return” to their former homes in Israel.

The change in rhetoric was seen as a way for Abbas to revive his plummeting popularity among the Palestinian public. Public criticism of his luxurious Gaza residence and his affluent lifestyle continues, but Abbas has established himself as No. 2 in the Palestinian Authority, and it generally is assumed that if he wants the job of prime minister, he’ll get it.

Fayed, on the other hand, is popular not only with the Americans and Israelis, but among his own people.

Fayed, 50, was born in a village near Tulkarm in the West Bank and moved with his family to Jordan as a child.

He earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Beirut, and completed doctoral studies at the University of Texas.

He worked with the International Monetary Fund in Washington, which in 1995 sent him as its emissary to the Palestinian Authority.

In June 2002, under heavy American pressure on Arafat to reform his government, Fayed was appointed finance minister. He began channeling most Palestinians funds into one tightly controlled budget, and has tried to put an end to the situation where Palestinian officials simply helped themselves to funds intended for public benefit.

Unlike Abbas, Fayed is known for his modest ways: He often uses public transportation, often faces the hardships of Israeli roadblocks like other Palestinians and is not surrounded by bodyguards.

Other figures mentioned as possible candidates for prime minister are Ahmed Karia, or Abu Ala, speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council; Hani Hassan, the P.A.’s interior minister; and Nabil Sha’ath, minister for planning and international cooperation.

Despite American and Israeli involvement, the final word on the issue still will be Arafat’s. He wants to convene the legislative council and the central council of the PLO to approve a candidate, and has issued a list of implausible demands that Israel must meet before he will appoint a prime minister.

The result is that the procedure will take time. So names come and go, but for the time being Arafat, confined to his Ramallah headquarters, deprived of a lot of his power, remains the only boss in Palestinian politics.

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