Yasser Arafat announced today he will appoint a prime minister to head his Palestinian Authority government, responding to intense pressure from international negotiators who say the diminution of Arafat's power as the Palestinian leader is critical to restarting peace efforts with Israel.
Arafat's announcement, made on the steps of the battered Ramallah compound where he has been kept a virtual prisoner by Israeli troops for 13 months, provided no details of the powers or degree of independence a prime minister would have, considered key factors by diplomats seeking to ensure the position will not be controlled by Arafat. Nor did Arafat say who the prime minister might be.
He told international negotiators that he would submit the name of a prime minister to the Palestinian Legislative Council for approval by early next week.
The declaration followed six days of meetings with representatives of the United Nations, the European Union and Russia -- members of the Quartet of mediators -- who lobbied the Palestinian leader individually and collectively to create the position before the anticipated U.S. war against Iraq.
In that same context, Arafat has formally embraced the "road map" suggested by the United States as a way to revive peace talks. But the United States, which is cooperating with the other three members of the Quartet, did not participate in the sessions because President Bush has forbidden American representatives to meet with Arafat.
"In light of contact that we conducted with members of the Quartet, I decided to appoint a prime minister," Arafat told reporters after the final 90-minute meeting this morning.
Israeli officials quickly expressed skepticism, saying they needed more details to judge the sincerity of Arafat's announcement.
"It's not relevant who the prime minister will be, but what he will be, a puppet or real prime minister," said Raanan Gissen, a spokesman for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. He said it was important that any prime minister have full control of the Palestinian Authority's finances and security services and that he use that power to implement reforms and stop terrorism.
Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special envoy to the Middle East who participated in four meeting with Arafat, called the Palestinian leader's announcement "a first step," adding that the nominee "has to be credible and has to be empowered."
Arafat, who was elected president of the Palestinian Authority in 1996, has been the leader of the Palestinians for more than three decades and is viewed by many as a revolutionary icon and symbol of their fight for statehood and independence. But even Arafat's admirers say his rule has become tainted by corruption and cronyism, and that political, financial, security and electoral reforms are vital.
Many Palestinians say they want new leadership but complain that concerted Israeli attacks on Arafat since the start of the current uprising have boosted his popularity and prestige. Many complain that Israeli and U.S. demands for changes in the elected Palestinian leadership are undemocratic and give Arafat an even tighter grip on power.
Arafat provided no hints about his potential nominee. Officials familiar with the negotiating sessions said some Quartet members were urging him to name Finance Minister Salam Fayyad, who has earned international recognition as one of Arafat's most independent and competent ministers.
"He's a good guy," Ehud Olmert, mayor of Jerusalem and a member of Sharon's inner circle, said of Fayyad. "But what power he will have, what position, how much influence he will have, and what role Arafat will play? We don't know that."
Saeb Erekat, the Palestinian minister for local government and a close associate of Arafat's who participated in many of this week's sessions, said many details about the job remain unknown because it does not yet exist. He said it must be created at upcoming meetings of the Palestinian legislative and central councils.
"The details will have to be worked out by the institutions," he said. "It's a legal matter."
But Arafat's decision to create the post should be greeted with optimism, not skepticism, Erekat said. "This may provide an opportunity for the U.S. and the other members of the Quartet to begin a process of de-escalation" of the 29-month-long Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Efforts to resume negotiations have been floundering for months, with the upper levels of the Bush administration all but ignoring Israeli-Palestinian issues while focusing attention on gathering support for action against Iraq.
Israel largely dismissed reconciliation efforts while Sharon was campaigning before the Jan. 28 election. Although Sharon recently held his first direct meeting in about a year with an official of the Palestinian Authority, most of his energies are focused on forming a government and preparing for the potential impact on Israel of the looming war.