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March 14, 2003 - Image 24

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 2003-03-14

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Tall Order

Palestinian choice of prime minister is hailed as a potential breakthrough.

Jewish Telegraphic Agency

like Ethiopian leader 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 move-
ment rebelled, passing a resolution to the effect that
the prime minister would have to be one of them.

killed in the Holocaust, claiming that the Nazis
killed only a few hundred thousand" Jews, not 6
million. In recent years, Abbas has said that he made
those statements at a time when the PLO was at war
with Israel and would not say such things now. •
Abbas, for many years, headed the PLO's Israel
desk, and after the 1991 Middle East peace confer-
ence in Madrid, he was given responsibility for the
PLO's negotiating strategy with Israel. He also is
considered the main Palestinian force behind secret
negotiations that led to the 1993 Oslo peace accords,
which Abbas co-signed with Israel's then-foreign
minister, Shimon Peres.
Last September, Abbas' criticism of the intifada
seemed to be coming to a head. With Arafat sur-
rounded by Israeli tanks at his headquarters in
Ramallah, Fatah officials met at Abbas' home a few
hundred yards away to demand reform.
However, the protracted Israeli siege of the head-
quarters led Palestinians to rally around their embat-
tled 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
2 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.

sraeli 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 militariza-
tion of the intifada (uprising) 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 signifi-
cant against the will of Yasser Arafat, who
remains Palestinian Authority leader and who
retains much of his executive power?
On March 10, Palestinian legislators con-
firmed- the 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
Officials at the American Israel Public Affairs
minister would control the day-to-day run-
Committee said Abbas is not an 'Arafat puppet,
ning of Palestinian government, whileArafat
but the question is still open how much free-
would continue to exercise control over nego-
dom Abbas will have to set policy and maneu-
tiations with Israel and over the Palestinian
security services — precisely the levers Arafat
The appointment won't be complete until
uses to prevent progress toward peace and to
Abbas and Arafat agree on the composition of
promote terrorism, Israeli officials say.
a new government. Abbas has said he won't
The notion of appointing a prime minister
accept the position unless he is able to form
Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, is the like-
alongside Arafat came after President Bush
the government he wants.
ly selection for the newly created post of Palestinian prime minister.
called for extensive Palestinian reforms last
In any event, a power struggle between
June, including the replacement of Arafat by
Arafat and Abbas could lead to a new dynamic
a Palestinian leadership not tainted by terror-
that could have a major impact on the future
ism. The idea was promoted by Israelis, members of
That opened the way for the appointment of Abbas,
of Israeli-Palestinian relations.
the international community and even many
the most senior Fatah official after Arafat.
Israeli politicians on the right and the left have
Palestinians — but Arafat, who saw it clearly as a
welcomed the choice of Abbas. Senior Labor legisla-
ploy to circumvent him, resisted it.
tor Matan Vilnai hopes it will help put an end to
Holocaust Twisting
As long as Arafat remained in charge, Israeli gov-
"the crazy Palestinian terror," but says Israel must be
ernment officials argued, there would be no reforms,
Abbas, 67, was born in Safed in the Galilee. His fam- careful not to spoil the chance by taking tough mili-
no cease-fire and no possibility of peace talks.
ily fled during Israel's 1948 War of Independence,
tary measures that could just as easily be deferred.
Appointing, a strong prime minister with authority
and he grew up in Syria. Abbas is a founding mem-
"Abbas is not a moderate but a pragmatist," says
and real power, they said, could change things.
ber of Fatah and is considered one of the organiza-
Labor's former justice minister, Yossi Beilin, who
The European Union and the United Nations,
tion's top experts on Israeli society.
played a major role on the Israeli side of the Oslo
which continued to maintain contacts with Arafat
He has a doctorate from Moscow University, with
negotiations. But as a pragmatist, Abbas is someone
after Israel and the United States boycotted him,
a thesis on supposed "contacts between the Zionist
Israel can deal with, as long as there is someone on
bought into the prime minister idea late last year and movement and the Nazis." According to the
the Israeli side willing to make a fair offer, Beilin
used their close ties with Arafat to push it forward.
Washington-based Middle East Media Research
The key meeting came last month when the U.N.'s
Institute, Abbas wrote that Zionist officials collabo-
In 1995, Beilin and Abbas developed a peace plan
special Middle East envoy, Terje Roed-Larsen, told
rated with the Nazis to create a situation where the
that was similar to the proposal made by President
Arafat bluntly that if he appointed a prime minister
world would agree on the necessity of a Jewish
Clinton at Camp David in July 2000.
he could still be the symbol of Palestinian freedom
Without going into detail, Israeli Prime Minister
and independence. But if he didn't, he might end up
Abbas also sought to minimize the number of Jews
Ariel Sharon describes Abbas' appointment as "a pos-


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