- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 8, 2003

GAZA, March 8 (UPI) — The Palestinian Central Council overwhelmingly passed a motion Saturday night to amend Palestinian law with a provision that will create the office of prime minister.

Earlier on Saturday Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat formally named his deputy and the Palestinian architect of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, Mahmoud Abbas, as his candidate for prime minister of the Palestinian Authority.

Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat told United Press International that the Palestinian Legislative Council, scheduled to convene Monday, is now set to vote on the actual nomination of Abbas, commonly known as Abu Mazen, as prime minister. The PLC consists of 88 members voted in by the Palestinian Authority's first election, in 1996. Arafat is a member as president of the Palestinian National Authority.

Erekat said the PA cabinet members should resign right after the PLC approves the new prime minister so he can form a new cabinet, the underpinnings of a new PA government. He would be the first minister, he added.

Arafat told members of the PCC meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, "Our choice would always democratic, holding elections, and isolating the three major authorities are part of this democracy. … Nominating a prime minister is part of the reforms in all aspects."

The PLC is expected to approve Abu Mazen as prime minister. As UPI reported March 6, senior PLC officials had already heard and approved Arafat's choice for the post.

Filling the office is a blow to U.S. and European pressure for Arafat to loosen his grip on power in the Palestinian territories. Abu Mazen is seen in the West as the candidate with the best chance of taking over some elements of authority, but Arafat is unlikely to concede in any challenge for real control — if indeed the prime minister would dare launch one.

Arafat has already indicated he plans to keep foreign policy matters and dealings with Israel as powers for his own office as PA president.

Abu Mazen, in his mid-60s, has been involved in the Palestinian cause and its leadership for many years. He is secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, a Fatah leader and a member of the Palestinian Central Council of the PLO. He was the Palestinian architect of reaching Oslo peace agreements signed in 1993 between Israel and the Palestinians, which led to the establishment of the PA on parts of the Palestinian territories.

Arafat announced in his speech that peace for the Palestinian people and their leadership is tactical: "The choice of peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis is our strategic choice," Arafat said. "We are not intending to change it, because it is our national goal that we would struggle for it."

He said this choice would enable the Palestinian people to get rid of the military occupation and establish their independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital. It will benefit the whole region, he added.

"We are committed to reach this goal through out negotiations and by using peaceful means. We are seeking to achieve a just and comprehensive peace that would lead to establishing a Palestinian state beside the state of Israel," said Arafat.

Arafat called upon the leaders of the various political, Islamist and nationalist Palestinian groups to reunite, work together and draw the plans and frame a new national policy that all "would reinforce national Palestinian unity." That effort should include activating the Unified Leadership of the Palestinian Intifada, he said, a movement that originated with the first Intifada from 1987 to 1993.

"The aim of reinforcing the national Palestinian unity is to work together until achieving the main common goal which ending the Israeli military occupation and establishing the independent Palestinian state," said Arafat.

The PCC, the mini-Palestinian parliament in exile of the PLO, was able to gather most of its 128 members Saturday. Travel restrictions imposed by Israel had blocked council-wide meetings in recent months.

PCC Speaker Salim Za'noon made similar points as Arafat in his speech for the meeting's opening ceremony, calling for unity among Palestinians under the PLO and for support of Arafat as PA chairman. He also laid out the agenda for the meeting in its opening ceremony, saying it would focus on current political developments including the draft Palestinian State constitution and vote for the prime minister nomination.

"Creating the new position of a prime minister must be a serious decision in order to complete the campaign of reforms that the Palestinian leadership decided to implement," said Za'noon.

Arafat announced two weeks ago during a meeting with Quartet Committee — representing the United States, European Union, the United Nations and Russia — that he accepted the proposal of nominating a Palestinian prime minister. He chose Abu Mazen over other candidates such as the Palestinian Authority's finance minister, Sallam Fayyad.

Palestinian observers have noted many difficulties await the new prime minister: a devastated Palestinian economy; the 30-month-old intifada, or uprising; and a stalled peace process with Israel.

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