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Backgrounder New P.A. Prime Minister, Ahmed Karia, a Pragmatist with Ties to Arafat and Israelis

September 10, 2003
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Ahmed Karia, the Palestinian prime minister-designate, was at Yasser Arafat’s side when they left Beirut in ignominy in 1983, and again when they arrived in Gaza in triumph in 1994.

And he’s not likely to leave the side of the man he calls "brother" in his new job.

Karia, 65, says his success in his new job depends on an end to the isolation of the reviled leader. His failed predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas, was never as close to Arafat and was more willing to confront Arafat’s insistence on control of the process.

Karia also called on Israel to halt its killings of Palestinian terrorists and freeze settlements in the West Bank.

Stephen P. Cohen, a Middle East scholar who met with Karia this week after his appointment was announced, said Karia told him he would not decide on whether to accept the job until he had a face-to-face meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Karia wants to know whether his demands have a realistic chance.

Ghassan el-Khatib, the Palestinian Labor minister, said Karia was keen not to repeat Abbas’ failure.

"If Karia is not assured of any progress for the peace process, he will not get any achievements for his people, which means a failure," he said. "So he wants to throw the ball in the right court," to the Israelis and the Americans.

A friendly reception on those terms seemed less than likely: Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel would not cooperate with a prime minister who followed Arafat’s orders. Israel believes the Palestinian failure to contain terrorists is a ploy by Arafat to use violence as negotiating leverage.

Still, some Israelis find Karia an affable, dapper moderate who has acknowledged Palestinian mistakes in the collapse of the peace process — and still more palatable than Arafat as a partner.

Unlike many of his compatriots, who saw accommodation with Israelis after the landmark 1993 Oslo agreement as a necessary evil, Karia spoke of the new era with the same pleased wonder as his Israeli counterparts.

In 1999, he ventured into the Israeli Knesset for a meeting with his then-counterpart in the parliament speaker job, Avraham Burg. The two posed beneath a portrait of Zionist icon Theodor Herzl and bantered.

"It was difficult for me to imagine," Karia said the same year, speaking to a reporter in Ramallah about the new reality. "Israelis coming here, Palestinians going there. But it happened."

He also has a rare understanding of Israeli concerns.

In 2002, Karia told Palestinian TV that Palestinian mistakes were among the reasons that many Israelis no longer supported peace and the reason why the right had come to power in Israel, according to the Jerusalem Post.

The peace movement "has begun to dwindle in Israel apparently due to some of the methods that we use," he was quoted as saying. "We are not talking about legitimate resistance here. But I do say that some of the actions that harm us need to stop."

Karia’s sartorial flair — he favors stylish rimless glasses and tailored suits — also helps sell his people’s case in the West.

Karia became close to a number of his Israeli interlocutors: Uri Savir, his counterpart in the secret talks before Oslo, and Maj. Gen. Uzi Dayan, a scion of one of Israel’s founding families who conducted security talks with Karia in 1995.

Savir describes Karia as a warm, outgoing man of great personal charm with an impish sense of humor. But he adds that Karia was a tough and talented negotiator, totally dedicated to the Palestinian cause and historical narrative.

He has a clear-eyed view of what each side wants.

In October 1999, when then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak launched the process that would lead to the final- status Camp David talks in 2000, Karia correctly predicted that the new initiative would founder over the issue of Palestinian refugees.

That hard-nosed approach has its advantages, said Cohen, the Middle East scholar.

The man known as Abu Ala is a "closer," Cohen said, and can bring talks to a resolution.

"He’s not one of those negotiators who talks endlessly; he knows how to close the deal," Cohen said. "That’s what his specialty is, getting to close the deal."

But not everyone is optimistic.

As long as Arafat is around, there is no progress; there are constant obstructions," said Gal Luft, an Israeli analyst.

"No Palestinian government can move on the road map; it doesn’t matter which ‘Abu’ you put in charge. As long as Arafat is there it’s hopeless," said Luft, who heads the U.S.-based Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

Karia was born to a wealthy merchant family in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Abu Dis in 1937. He is married with 5 children.

In the wake of the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, he left Abu Dis for the Persian Gulf, moving to Beirut, Cyprus and Tunis. He now lives in Abu Dis.

A banker by trade, Karia joined Arafat’s Fatah wing of the PLO in 1968 and came to prominence in the mid-1970s, when he took over the Palestinian Samed bank in Lebanon.

By 1980, the PLO’s business enterprises Karia headed generated an income of about $40 million a year, and, with 6500 full time employees, ranked as one of the largest employers in Lebanon. The organizations Karia headed also funded economic and social activities in the West Bank.

In 1983, when the Israeli army forced the PLO out of Lebanon, Karia left with Arafat and the rest of the leadership for Tunis. There he was elected to the Fatah Central Committee in 1989 and worked closely with Abbas, who was then in charge of unofficial contacts with Israel.

In 1993, Karia headed the Palestinian delegation to the secret talks in Norway that led to the Oslo Accords, signed on the White House lawn on Sept. 13, exactly 10 years ago.

Around the same time, Karia was instrumental in drafting a Palestinian development plan, which was presented to a World Bank conference on aid in 1993. The draft became a central document in the PLO development strategy for the Palestinian territories.

Later Karia helped design the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction, an organization that channels international capital for Palestinian projects.

In January 1996, when Palestinians voted for their first parliament, Karia was elected speaker of the 88-member Palestinian Legislative Council, a position he has held ever since.

At Camp David in 2000, Karia took umbrage after being upbraided by President Clinton for speaking as if he were "addressing the U.N.," and he took little further part in the talks. Karia says he was merely rejecting an inadequate Israel territorial offer.

Like Abbas, Karia lacks a firm political base. But unlike Abbas, he stood for the legislative council and was elected in his home district of Abu Dis.

Like Abbas, he is a pragmatist, presumed ready for a deal with Israel, although, unlike Abbas, he did not overtly criticize the "militarization" of the intifada or criticize by implication Arafat’s handling of it.

Perhaps the most significant difference between the two men is one of style: Karia has greater interpersonal and political skills than the introverted Abbas — attributes that might help him succeed where his predecessor failed.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell suggested that the personality of any Palestinian Authority prime minister was less important than the powers he accrued and how he administered them.

"We hope that however it turns out, whoever the prime minister is — and I would suspect it is going to be Abu Ala — that he will make a commitment to fight terrorism," Powell said.

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