- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 11, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank The Palestinian parliament established the position of prime minister yesterday and gave initial approval to a bill defining the job, major steps in reforms sought by the United States, Europe and Israel to curb Yasser Arafat's near-absolute powers.

It appears, however, that Mr. Arafat will retain control of two key issues security and peace talks with Israel while the new prime minister will deal largely with internal affairs, including naming and supervising Cabinet ministers.

The power-sharing agreement, worked out last week by Mr. Arafat and his intended appointee for prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, falls short of demands that a new prime minister effectively replace Mr. Arafat as the chief peace negotiator.

The parliament approved the measure defining the prime minister's powers by a vote of 73 to 1. Mr. Arafat must approve the bill for it to become law.

The measure says that Mr. Arafat has the right to appoint and dismiss the prime minister. The next step will be for Mr. Arafat to formally choose Mr. Abbas, who will form a Cabinet. The new prime minister and government are to be brought before the parliament for approval in the coming days, Palestinian officials said.

President Bush has said the Palestinians have to choose new leaders as a precondition for statehood.

Mr. Arafat reluctantly agreed last month to name a prime minister after balking for months at the idea, also popular among Palestinians. Critics remain skeptical about his intentions, saying that while the appointment of a prime minister could be presented as genuine reform, they expect Mr. Arafat to resist relinquishing power.

"It would be a radical change for someone other than Arafat to be exercising broad powers," legislator Ziad Abu Amr said yesterday. "I don't think it will be easy for this prime minister to extract power from President Arafat."

U.S. and Israeli officials hinted at regret yesterday that Mr. Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, apparently will have little say in peace talks. Mr. Abbas is a moderate and the most outspoken critic of shooting and bombing attacks on Israelis.

"Our view is the prime minister should be empowered … to move forward toward peace and away from violence and terrorism, and that's what we hope the Palestinian legislative council does," said the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Mr. Abbas should be given a chance to stop terror and incitement against Israel. "The real question is if he will get the authority," Mr. Shalom said.

In other developments yesterday, Israeli troops withdrew from a 4-square-mile area of northern Gaza they seized last week in an attempt to stop the firing of homemade rockets at Israeli border towns. At the time, army commanders said the reoccupation was open-ended. The pullback came despite the firing of four Qassam rockets on the Israeli town of Sderot yesterday.

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