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Arafat Names New Palestinian Prime Minister - 2003-03-07


Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has named his longtime deputy to fill the new post of prime minister. The announcement came just two days before a key meeting Saturday, in the West Bank city of Ramallah where Palestinian political reforms will be discussed.

Under increasing international pressure to reform his administration, Yasser Arafat has chosen his long-time deputy, Mahmoud Abbas, to become prime minister. The announcement was made by the speaker of the Palestinian parliament, Ahmed Qureia, late Thursday. On Saturday, the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization is to discuss the reform effort at a meeting here in Ramallah. The council represents the various Palestinian factions and broadly supports Mr. Arafat. Its expected approval of the proposed prime ministerial position would give the reform measure greater legitimacy as it is passed on to the Palestinian parliament - the Legislative Council - for final approval.

One of those slated to attend Saturday's Central Council meeting is Interior Minister Hanni al-Hassan who says the naming of a prime minister is important in building proper political institutions. "In the Arab world generally, and maybe also in the third world, the idea of institution is not so developed like in the West or in America," he said. "So, now we are going in this direction."

In an interview with VOA, the Interior Minister said the Palestinian Authority is ready to reform. But he also said Israel must be forced to allow those reforms to be implemented. Israel has in the past prevented members of the Palestinian Legislative Council from traveling to attend meetings, citing security concerns.

Minister al-Hassan says the United States, which has been among those pressing Mr. Arafat to make reforms, should also put pressure on Israel to allow the reforms to be implemented.

Mr. al-Hassan also says Israel has been caught by surprise by Mr. Arafat's decision to name a Prime Minister. He says Israel plays a game making demands it thinks Mr. Arafat will not fulfill. But, he says this time it did not work. "You know, Israel is always bargaining that Arafat will not do [something], so they ask things believing that Arafat will refuse it because it will limit his power and now they are surprised that Arafat accepted," he said.

Mr. Arafat was seen as reluctant to name a prime minister, fearing that would dilute his own power. But, pressure was increasing from outside and also within his administration. Israel and the United States accuse Mr. Arafat of supporting terrorism and would like to see him step aside completely. European nations have also urged him to relinquish some power and establish a more transparent administration, not tainted by corruption. And, Palestinians themselves have been demanding political reforms.

There was widespread speculation that Mr. Arafat would name a weak prime minister to ensure his own grip on power. But the man he chose is anything but weak.

Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazzen, was a co-founder of the Fatah movement, which Mr. Arafat heads. Mr. Abbas has a strong political following and is known as a moderate. He has called the use of violence in the current Palestinian uprising against Israel a mistake and has urged a return to peace negotiations.

Mr. Abbas is popular in the parliament. But, Interior Minister Hanni al-Hassan says approval of his appointment as Prime Minister shouldn't be taken for granted. "You will see that in the Legislative Council and the Central Council people are not so adoring this idea of a prime minister," he said. "People are not supporting this change because they feel this change is coming under pressure and they are refusing to work under pressure."

The fact that reforms are being dictated from outside does not go down well with many average Palestinians either. A civil servant in the Palestinian Authority, who gave her name only as Najwa, says reform is important, but it must come from within. "You know we need a prime minister, to have associations, to have real ministers, why not," she said. "You know our leader, Arafat, is in a very difficult situation. We are with him because Arafat is the soul of our revolution. So, nobody can scratch [push] him away because we need him."

But, not all Palestinians look so kindly on Mr. Arafat and those close to him. Independent Palestinian lawmaker Abdel Jawad Saleh says the current Palestinian leadership is corrupt and not ready for substantive reform. He says it was only pressure that made Yasser Arafat go even this far. "Unfortunately, we have corrupt leadership," Mr. Saleh said. "The new leaders are really not less corrupt than Arafat and so really, they are part of the formula, the game. I believe that the Palestinians will take the responsibility in their hands. They should work hard to have new elections and new leadership, which will change the corruption, the abuse, all the wrongs."

Mr. Saleh is one of Mr. Arafat's most outspoken critics in the Palestinian legislature. He says under Israeli occupation the Palestinian people cannot demonstrate for the reforms that are needed.

Even this first step made by Mr. Arafat - appointing a prime minister - could take some time to implement. Once the PLO Central Council debates the plan, he will have to convince two thirds of the members of the Legislative Council to change the Palestinian Constitution and establish the prime minister's position.