- The Washington Times - Monday, March 3, 2003

GAZA, March 3 (UPI) — The Palestinian Legislative Council and the Palestinian Central Council meet next week to choose the Palestinians' first prime minister, a Palestinian spokesman said Monday.

The two meetings — scheduled for March 8 and 10 — first will amend the Palestinian's basic law to create the new position before candidates are nominated.

A well-informed Palestinian source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the prime minister would chair meetings of the Palestinian Authority Cabinet and would be responsible for local issues and finance, but Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat would remain retain control of negotiations with Israel and foreign policy issues.

This formula is certain to disappoint both the Bush administration and the Israeli government, analysts said, because neither is willing to negotiate with Arafat. President Bush has called on the Palestinians to choose another leader, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has refused to accept Arafat as an interlocutor in any future peace talks.

There are three high-ranking Palestinian Authority officials are in line for the new position. Mahmoud Abbas, better known as Abu Mazen, is the second man in Palestine Liberation Organization, and the architect of Oslo peace accords. Observers regard Abu Mazen as the most likely candidate. Israeli officials have said they could do business with him.

The candidate who is said to be preferred by Washington is Finance Minister Sallam Fayyad. The third candidate is parliamentary Speaker Ahmed Qurea.

Palestinian officials said Arafat's decision to convene the two Palestinian official bodies was part of his program of reforms to reinforce Palestinian democracy. However, it has yet to be seen how many of the members of the Legislative Council and the Central Council will be allowed to travel to the West Bank town of Ramallah to attend the meeting.

Travel continues to be restricted in the West Bank and Gaza. Israel said recently that it would block any of the 124 members of the Central Council and the 88 legislators who it claims were involved in armed attacks against Israel, or support armed attacks carried out against Israel. Since all Palestinian officials support the intifada, or uprising, attendance could depend entirely on the Israelis.

But the Palestinian leadership has appealed to Washington and the other members of the Quartet Committee on the Middle East — the Russian foreign minister, the foreign minister of the European Union, and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan — to persuade Israel to give travel permits to all the members.

"We hope that no one single member would be absent," said Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator. "Until now, there is no clear Israeli position to allow the two official bodies members to reach Ramallah and convene next week."

Having called the meetings Monday, Arafat told reporters the Israeli government planned to block the nomination of the first Palestinian prime minister by "creating obstacles to prevent official Palestinians from reaching Ramallah." If the Israelis continued military operations in the West Bank and Gaza, Arafat said, "They would be totally responsible for dismantling the implementation of our decisions."

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