- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Palestinian lawmakers yesterday clipped the powers of longtime leader Yasser Arafat, approving a new prime minister and meeting a key condition President Bush set for release of a new international "road map" for peace with Israel.
After failing over the weekend to limit the powers of the new office, Mr. Arafat yesterday signed the bill clearing the way for longtime deputy Mahmoud Abbas to take the prime minister's job. He has sweeping powers to appoint new ministers, attack corruption and prepare for the resumption of direct peace talks with Israel.
Mr. Arafat retains ultimate authority on critical security and peacemaking issues, but U.S. officials said privately that yesterday's vote provided enough "real authority" to Mr. Abbas to clear the way for the release of the road map once the new Palestinian government is officially confirmed.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, in an interview with foreign news services yesterday, said there is "a disappointment that [the security] portfolio seems to remain wholly in the hands of Chairman Arafat."
"Having said that, we do have a prime minister emerging, with authority given to him by the legislature," he added.
Palestinian legislators, who have complained that the pressure on Israel had waned as the Bush administration focused its energies on Iraq, hailed yesterday's 69-1 vote as a "victory for Palestinian democracy," in the words of senior Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat.
The road map itself consists of a detailed series of steps Israel and the Palestinians are to take over the next two years leading to the creation of an independent Palestinian state in 2005 alongside a secure Israel.
Under the road map, Israel is to halt construction of Jewish settlements in West Bank and the Gaza Strip, ease travel and other restrictions on Palestinians and eventually enter into direct talks on a new Palestinian state.
The map also calls for an end to Palestinian terrorist attacks and major political reforms within the Palestinian Authority.
Details of the plan, which was formulated by "Quartet" of the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia, have long been known by both sides, but its public release had been repeatedly put off amid continuing Israeli-Palestinian violence and the complicated maneuvering over Iraq.
U.S. officials maintain that the delays were tied to the political uncertainty in Israel after Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's re-election in late January and by the need for the Palestinians to show concrete evidence of the internal political reforms Mr. Bush demanded.
Palestinian officials have pressed for the quick release of the road map, while Mr. Sharon's government has been more wary, seeking numerous changes in the draft text. Major questions remain over the exact sequencing of events and over who will measure the progress made by both sides.
While Mr. Bush's Rose Garden pledge last week to go public with the peace plan was widely dismissed in the European and Arab media as a propaganda ploy, the road map may have proven politically useful in the frantic diplomatic endgame over Iraq.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Mr. Bush's closest ally in the Iraq confrontation, had been pressing Washington to release the road map to stave off criticism that the major powers were ignoring Israeli-Palestinian violence in the wrangling over Saddam Hussein.
He dodged a damaging political blow when Clare Short, his international development minister and a fierce critic of his Iraq policy, said yesterday she had decided not to resign from the Cabinet, citing the prospect for progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks behind her decision.

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