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yes, prime minister, by khaled abu toameh

  1. Feb. 20, 2003
    Yes, prime minister, By Khaled Abu Toameh

    Arafat's announcement about appointing a prime minister is seen by many as an attempt to appease the international community - not abdicate power

    Tony Blair and his European Union colleagues believe that Yasser Arafat's prime minister will be a Palestinian Winston Churchill, but all the indications so far are that the premier will be little more than Jim Hacker, Ramallah-style - a powerless pawn completely under the thumb of the Palestinian leader.

    A number of Palestinian officials have admitted as much, but mostly in Arabic. Dr. Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, was quoted by the Palestinian Authority's daily al Hayat al Jadeeda as stressing that the prime minister would be "fully answerable to President Arafat."

    Yasser Abed Rabbo, the Palestinian minister of Information, assured the Palestinian public that only their "legitimate institutions" would have the authority to appoint the first Palestinian prime minister. In other words, neither the US nor its friends in Israel and the EU would be able to impose their favorite candidate on Arafat, an embodiment of the Palestinians' "legitimate institutions."

    "It looks like Arafat will continue to play the role of Sir Humphrey after he names a prime minister," says a Palestinian political analyst in Ramallah. "Frankly speaking, I don't see how a Palestinian prime minister would be able to function independently with Arafat's shadow hovering over him. After all, if you are appointed by Arafat, you are expected to be loyal to him, not to Washington or London."

    Arafat's "dramatic" announcement last week, in which he declared his readiness to appoint a prime minister for the PA, came as no surprise to many Palestinians, who believe that their leader had no choice but to succumb to intense pressure from the international community to implement major reforms in his corruption-riddled administration.

    Representatives of the Quartet, which comprises the US, the EU, the UN and Russia, exerted heavy pressure on Arafat to accept the idea of appointing a prime minister with extensive authority. The US, which has been boycotting Arafat for the past two years, did not send a representative of its own to see Arafat. But Washington is believed to have thrown its full weight behind the initiative, with the hope that by "kicking Arafat upstairs," he will eventually turn into a symbolic figurehead with no power.

    "The timing is good for Arafat, and that's why he chose to make the announcement," explains a Palestinian official. "Arafat has been under pressure to appoint a prime minister ever since the Israeli army reoccupied the West Bank last April. I believe he finally agreed because he feels that he can no longer avoid this issue.

    "The region is about to enter a very dangerous phase as the Americans prepare to launch a war against Iraq, and Arafat's nightmare is that Israel will seize the opportunity to either kill him or send him into exile. He knows that [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon's plan is to curtail his authority and ultimately replace him. Arafat is saying, 'Ok, if you want a prime minister, I'll give you one, but it should be clear who's the boss here. I will pick the prime minister and he will report to me directly.'"

    The scenario of possible expulsion from the Palestinian areas is one of the main reasons behind Arafat's consent. The Quartet officials, representing the UN, Russia and the EU, are believed to have given an ultimatum to Arafat that he must name a prime minister or face the possibility of being humiliated by Sharon. They are reported to have told the Palestinian leader that if he expects them to side with him against Sharon, he must share power with a prime minister. It took the Quartet representatives two meetings to persuade Arafat that it was in his own best interest to comply.

    "They told Arafat that he is running out of time and that unless he meets their demand to appoint a prime minister he would be left alone to face Sharon," says a senior Palestinian official in Ramallah who was present at the talks. "They insisted that Arafat make the announcement as soon as possible in order to show that he's serious about repairing the situation."

    Hence many Palestinians regard Arafat's announcement more as an attempt to appease the international community than as a sincere effort on his part to wipe out corruption. In the words of one Palestinian official, "Arafat's decision is first and foremost aimed at calming the Americans and the Europeans. The man believes in the need to change things, but he's not happy with the fact that he's being forced to do so, almost at gunpoint. Arafat has been living in isolation for more than a year and he's prepared to do almost anything to make a comeback. He also knows that without the support of the EU, especially the financial aid, the PA would cease to exist. It's a pity that Arafat finally chose to name a prime minister under heavy pressure from the US and the EU and not as a result of a Palestinian demand."

    According to the official, reports in the Israeli and foreign media, according to which Washington favors Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad for the top job, have only made Arafat's mission of appointing a prime minister more complicated. Appointing the highly respected technocrat would be interpreted as accepting American and Israeli dictates, and this is the last thing Arafat wants these days. The reports have also seriously embarrassed Fayyad himself, who was forced on Tuesday to declare that he's not interested in the job.

    A source close to Fayyad says that the minister does not see himself as a candidate for the premiership, "particularly in light of media reports that the US and Israel are pressuring the Palestinians to appoint him."

    The source adds that Fayyad prefers at this stage to focus on his work in the Ministry of Finance "because he believes there's a lot of work that needs to be done there."

    Those who know Fayyad say they would be very surprised if he accepts the job. "He doesn't want to be involved in politics," says a Palestinian who works closely with the finance minister. "That's why ever since he took over the Ministry of Finance he has avoided dealing with issues that are not directly linked to his office. He just doesn't want to step into the political quagmire. He wants to maintain his image of a clean official. Even when he sat with Sharon last week, he refused to talk about political or security issues, insisting on discussing only financial matters. The Americans have to understand that this is not Afghanistan and Fayyad doesn't want to be the Palestinian Hamid Karzai.

    ANOTHER LEADING candidate in the race for prime minister is Mahmoud Abbas, who is better known as Abu Mazen. Abbas is the No. 2 in the PLO after Arafat and has long been considered a serious successor to the Palestinian leader. His relationship with Arafat is a very complicated one. Sometimes he appears to be very close to Arafat, but at other times the two seem to be engaged in an eternal dispute.

    When IDF tanks were surrounding Arafat's headquarters in Ramallah as part of Operation Defensive Shield last year, rumors had it that Abbas and a number of senior Palestinian officials were secretly planning to overthrow the Palestinian leader. According to the rumors, the alleged conspirators were supported by the US and Israel.

    The rumors began spreading after Abbas summoned several Palestinian officials and activists to an urgent meeting at his villa in Ramallah. The city was then under curfew, but the IDF granted special permission to Abbas to hold the meeting. At the meeting, the Palestinian officials discussed the need to appoint a prime minister who would run the day-to-day affairs of the Palestinian people alongside Arafat and decided that Abbas was the most suitable candidate.

    When the siege was finally lifted, a delegation went to see Arafat to demand that he appoint Abbas as prime minister. The idea behind the initiative then was to force Arafat to cede much of his power to prevent the complete collapse of the PA and to encourage the international community to continue its financial support for the Palestinians. Arafat listened and promised to "seriously" consider the proposal, explaining that he had in fact been planning to name a prime minister long before they came up with the idea.

    "We told him, 'Abu Ammar, you are the President of Palestine, you don't need to deal with minor, day-to-day issues,'" says a Palestinian who participated in the meeting. "He agreed and said that at his age he feels tired and that he needs someone to help him. We thought that he would name a prime minister within days, but he just ignored us. I believe he made a big mistake by turning us down then because now it looks like he's being forced by the Americans and the Europeans to appoint a prime minister. We don't want reforms under the threat of Israeli tanks and guns."

    Abbas said this week that he too is not interested in the new post, although many Palestinians argue that he wants the job more than anything else. Unlike Fayyad, Abbas enjoys the support of the Fatah leadership, as well as many members of the Palestinian Legislative Council. Together with the PLO Central Council, the PLC is needed to approve Arafat's candidate for prime minister.

    "Abu Mazen's chances of winning the confidence of both bodies seem greater," says a West Bank Fatah official. "Although Fayyad is widely respected, he lacks the charisma of Abu Mazen and doesn't have a political basis. He is relatively new on the Palestinian arena and many people still don't know him well."

    Palestinian officials say it could take two to three weeks before Arafat announces his preferred candidate for prime minister. One of the first moves he has to make is to amend the PA's basic law so that it would include the position of prime minister.

    The next step would be to convene the PLC and the PLO Central Committee to seek their approval. The PLC hasn't been able to meet in full quorum for almost two years, although all of its members live in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. In the case of the PLO's Central Committee, things could turn out to be much more difficult. Most of the council's members live abroad and bringing them to the West Bank and Gaza could prove to be an impossible mission. Moreover, many of them are opposed to the decision merely because it's being portrayed as an American and Israeli demand.

    "What will happen if the Palestinian legislators refuse to endorse the Quartet's candidate out of keenness for Palestinian dignity?" asks Hasan al Batal, a respected Palestinian analyst. "What will happen if our representatives propose candidates favored by the Palestinian people? The PLC has already shaken the president's cabinet by forcing it to resign to avoid losing the parliament's confidence. We want our representatives to resist the international guardianship, as they did when they confronted the PA's hegemony."

    Al Batal's remarks reflect the general mood among the Palestinians that the US and its allies are twisting Arafat's arm and trying to force him to make yet more concessions. For most Palestinians, what is urgently needed now is an end to the ongoing IDF crackdown in the West Bank and Gaza and not a prime minister, especially one who is a puppet in Arafat's hands.

    This explains why the Palestinian newspapers and radio and TV stations devoted little space and time to the issue of the Palestinian prime minister compared with the wide coverage in the Israeli and Western media. Washington and London seem to be more interested in Arafat's announcement than most residents of Nablus and Rafah, whose only worry these days is whether they will get through another day under curfew and how they will earn their livings.

    "Who needs a prime minister while Arafat is still around?" asks a Palestinian engineer in Nablus. "Is this the way to solve the problem? Will such a move put an end to the daily bloodletting? People here don't care anymore about what Arafat does or doesn't do. Arafat is the prime minister, the minister, the president and everything. How can anyone seriously expect him to step aside and allow someone else to take over most of his authority? Even if we have a prime minister, he wouldn't be able to move an inch without Arafat's consent. Arafat is not an idiot and he will never allow anyone to undermine his power, at least not as long as he's alive."

    No, prime minister
    Hafez al Barghouti, the editor-in-chief of the Palestinian daily al Hayat al Jadeeda, says that under the current circumstances, the Palestinians don't need a prime minister who doesn't even have the authority to drive through an IDF checkpoint.

    "Now, they say that we need a prime minister," he says, "but I believe that our situation today doesn't require even ministers. Perhaps all what we need are directors. The prime minister might not have the authority to pass through an Israeli checkpoint or arrive at the meeting of his cabinet or leave if there's a curfew.

    "Those who are talking to us about a prime minister don't even recognize the official title of the elected president and refer to him as chairman. The Americans were the first to raise the issue of a prime minister after the invasion [during Operation Defensive Shield]. The Americans demanded that we appoint a prime minister, and Nabil Sha'ath, the minister of Planning and International Cooperation, told them back then that this position is mentioned in the Palestinian Constitution draft which is being prepared for the promised state.

    "But the Americans ignored the constitution and focused on the post of prime minister. Whoever follows the reports thinks that the ministers will appoint the prime minister and that this is aimed at filling the vacuum and to meet the demands of the Quartet.

    "But this is not the case. No one wants a prime minister without authority. The local understanding of a prime minister is different from that in the West. We want a prime minister who follows the work of his ministries and ministers, not one who tries to appease.

    "We want someone who holds others accountable and punishes. For some time we have been witnessing a ministerial vacuum because the ministers' top priority has been to win the confidence of the president, not the suffering people."

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