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Palestinian Choice of Prime Minister is Hailed As a Potential Breakthrough

March 11, 2003
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Israeli officials are hailing the choice of Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian prime minister as a potential watershed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that creates new hope for a cease-fire and a new political process.

For months now, Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, has been speaking out against the militarization of the intifada against Israel, which he calls a “strategic mistake” and a “dead end.”

But will he be able to impose his will on the various Palestinian terrorist organizations to get them to stop the violence?

And will he be able to do anything significant against the will of Yasser Arafat, who remains Palestinian Authority president and who retains much of his executive power?

On Monday, Palestinian legislators confirmed Saturday’s PLO Central Committee decision to create the post. The council has yet to approve the selection of Abbas to hold the post, though it’s considered likely.

In any case, the new prime minister’s duties may cause tension with Israel and the United States.

According to reports, the new prime minister would control the day-to-day running of Palestinian government, while Arafat would continue to exercise control over negotiations with Israel and over the Palestinian security services — precisely the levers that Arafat uses to prevent progress toward peace and to promote terrorism, Israeli officials say.

The notion of appointing a prime minister alongside Arafat came after President Bush called for extensive Palestinian reforms last June, including the replacement of Arafat by a Palestinian leadership not tainted by terrorism.

The idea was promoted by Israelis, members of the international community and even many Palestinians — but Arafat, who saw it clearly as a ploy to circumvent him, resisted it.

As long as Arafat remained in charge, Israeli government officials argued, there would be no reforms, no cease-fire and no possibility of peace talks. Appointing a strong prime minister with authority and real power, they said, could change things.

The European Union and the United Nations, which continued to maintain contacts with Arafat after Israel and the United States boycotted him, bought into the prime minister idea late last year, and used their close ties with Arafat to push it forward.

The key meeting came last month when the U.N.’s special Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, told Arafat bluntly that if he appointed a prime minister he could still be the Palestinian Nelson Mandela, the symbol of Palestinian freedom and independence — but that if he didn’t, he might end up a Palestinian Haile Selassie, turned on and expelled by his own people.

The tough talk did the trick. Emerging from the Feb. 14 meeting, Arafat announced his readiness to make the appointment.

At first, however, it seemed that Arafat merely intended to go through the motions by appointing a puppet he could control, rather than a strong-willed individual with real power. His first choice was a wealthy Nablus businessman, Muniv al-Masri.

But senior officials in Arafat’s own Fatah movement rebelled, passing a resolution to the effect that the prime minister would have to be one of them. That opened the way for the appointment of Abbas, the most senior Fatah official after Arafat.

At 67, Abbas is seven years younger than Arafat. He is a founding member of Fatah and is considered one of the organization’s top experts on Israeli society.

He has a doctorate from Moscow University on “contacts between the Zionist movement and the Nazis” — according to the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute, Abbas wrote that Zionist officials collaborated with the Nazis to create a situation where the world would agree on the necessity of a Jewish homeland — and for many years he was head of the PLO’s Israel desk.

After the 1991 Middle East Peace conference in Madrid, Abbas was given responsibility for the PLO’s negotiating strategy with Israel, and was the man pulling the strings on the Palestinian side in secret negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accords, which Abbas co-signed with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.

Last September, Abbas’s criticism of the intifada seemed to be coming to a head. With Arafat surrounded by Israeli tanks at his headquarters in Ramallah, Fatah officials met at Abbas’s home a few hundred yards away to demand reform.

However, the protracted Israeli siege of the headquarters led Palestinians to rally around their embattled leader, alleviating pressure for reform.

Now, six months later, crucial questions remain: What powers will the prime minister get, and what powers will the president retain? Who will control the finances, who will head the armed forces and who will make the final decisions if and when talks with Israel resume?

Arafat confidant Saeb Erekat maintains that “the prime minister is there to help and assist President Arafat, not to replace him.”

Abbas supporters, on the other hand, say their man will have the last word.

The appointment won’t be complete until Abbas and Arafat agree on the composition of a new government. Abbas has made said he won’t accept the position unless he is able to form the government he wants.

In any event, a power struggle between President Arafat and a Prime Minister Abbas could lead to a new dynamic that could have a major impact on the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Israeli politicians on the right and the left have welcomed the choice of Abbas. Senior Labor legislator Matan Vilnai hopes it will help put an end to “the crazy Palestinian terror,” but says Israel must be careful not to spoil the chance by taking tough military measures that could just as easily be deferred.

“Abbas is not a moderate but a pragmatist,” says Labor’s former justice minister, Yossi Beilin, who played a major role on the Israeli side of the Oslo negotiations.

But as a pragmatist Abbas is someone Israel can deal with, as long as there is someone on the Israeli side willing to make a fair offer, Beilin says.

In 1995, Beilin and Abbas developed a peace plan that was similar to the proposal made by President Clinton at Camp David in July 2000.

Without going into detail, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon describes Abbas’s appointment as “a positive move in the right direction.”

Beyond the powers Abbas gets, much depends on what policies he pursues, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom says.

“There are a few things he can do unconditionally, like stopping terror and incitement,” Shalom says.

But that could prove a tall order, as the challenges Abbas faces are immense: He will have to survive Arafat’s efforts to clip his wings; he will have to establish international credibility the way P.A. Finance Minister Salam Fayed has done; and he will have to find a way to stop violence against Israel if a peace process is to proceed.

That could mean taking on the Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which reject any suspension of violence against Israel.

One of the reasons Fatah people pushed for reform of the Palestinian Authority is because they sensed they were losing ground in the Palestinian street to Hamas. How Abbas goes about restoring Fatah’s supremacy could determine whether or not the intifada finally stops.

Some of Abbas’s supporters, former security chiefs like Mohammad Dahlan and Jibril Rajoub, may push for a showdown with Hamas. But taking on the fundamentalists could be tantamount to Palestinian civil war.

That’s why Arafat always avoided it. Will Abu Mazen?

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