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Analysts: Appointment of a Palestinian PM Could Sideline Yasser Arafat - 2003-03-14

Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, under pressure from the international community, agreed this week to the creation of the new position of prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, and ceded some of his powers to the new post. In Washington, President Bush called this development a "hopeful moment for progress" in the stalled peace process. He said he would unveil his long-sought "road map" for Middle East peace once a new Palestinian prime minister with real governing authority takes office. The co-author of an authoritative biography of Mr. Arafat says it may be soon be time to write the final chapter in the political career of the 73-year-old Palestinian president.

The writer, Tony Walker, says that although Mr. Arafat has survived many predictions of his political demise during his 35 years as Palestinian leader, he is now not likely to stay in power much longer.

"I can't believe there will be too many last acts for Mr. Arafat," he said. "He has probably had more last acts than any other world leader. So, yes, indeed I do feel that I am writing the last version and in some respects, I guess politically anyway, I feel I am writing his epitaph."

The first sign of trouble for Mr. Arafat came in December 2001, when the Israeli government banned all direct contact with him. Six months later, President Bush called for Mr. Arafat to be replaced. The president said the Palestinian people should look to new leadership, not tainted by terrorism.

For a time afterwards, Mr. Arafat relied on support from European nations but even that appears to have waned. European diplomats were credited with being instrumental in finally convincing Mr. Arafat to share power with a prime minister.

That prime minister will be Mahmoud Abbas, Mr. Arafat's longtime deputy in the Palestine Liberation Organization. Mr. Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is seen as a moderate, and analysts say he could be a person Israel and the United States can deal with, if Mr. Arafat is willing to remain in the background.

But Israeli journalist, Danny Rubinstein says Mr. Arafat will not be sidelined easily. Mr. Rubinstein has written about the Palestinian leader for most of his career, and wrote a book called the Mystery of Arafat.

Mr. Rubinstein says the Palestinian leader is closely identified with his people's struggle for independence, and that makes it impossible to write him off, just yet.

"They see him as a symbol. That's his nickname, a symbol. Not a leader but our leader and our symbol," he explained. "In Arabic it is the Rams [symbol] of the people. He is the representative of not only the people but let's say the history, the tragedy of the Palestinian people, the suffering."

But while Mr. Arafat may wish to use his reputation to protect his political position, some observers say he cannot indefinitely ignore the calls for him to allow someone else to take over the leadership.

Among them is Said Aburish, the first Palestinian to write a critical biography of Mr. Arafat. The book is called Arafat, from Defender to Dictator.

"I think that it is time that the last chapter of Yasser Arafat be written, because I see no circumstances in which Yasser Arafat is going to survive his present predicament, the way he used to do in the past," Said Aburish said. "The simple fact, now, is Yasser Arafat is confronted by a situation in which he cannot deal with the United States. The Israelis are not enamored by him. That is also a subtraction from Arafat's position."

Mr. Arafat remains immensely popular among the Palestinian people. But Mr. Aburish says even that is beginning to change.

"The Palestinian people no longer trust Arafat in terms of representing them in international forums because his past presentation has not produced anything," he said.

Some observers believe that the critical turning point for Mr. Arafat came at the Camp David peace summit in July 2000, when he turned down an offer from Israel to establish a Palestinian state.

Several months later, Palestinian militants launched a series of attacks against Israel, and Israel responded with attacks of its own, as well as the re-occupation of some areas that had been given to the Palestinian Authority. The fighting, which continues, has left more than 2,000 people dead and thousands more wounded.

During the same period, there have been no peace talks and the Palestinians have made no political or territorial gains.

In recent days, U.S. officials have rejected suggestions that they wanted to delay the release of the roadmap until after the crisis with Iraq was resolved, and hinted that Mr. Arafat's nomination of the moderate Abu Mazen to be prime minister may have changed the situation.

Some observers say the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister could help break the deadlock, and could also mean a new and unaccustomed secondary role for Yasser Arafat.