#18: The Palestinian Prime Minister
(March 19, 2003)
After negotiating with Yasser Arafat for more than seven years, the PLO chairman’s failure to accept Israeli Prime Minister Barak’s offer to create a Palestinian state in 2000 convinced virtually all Israelis that he did not have the courage and conviction of Anwar Sadat and King Hussein to make peace with Israel. The Bush Administration joined in this assessment and made clear the resumption of the peace process required a change in Palestinian leadership.
Acknowledging Arafat’s symbolic leadership role among the Palestinians, the hope has been that Arafat’s political authority would be transferred to a Prime Minister, and that Arafat's position as President of the Palestinian Authority would become largely ceremonial.
Under international pressure, Arafat has now appointed Mahmud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to be the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority. This is a positive step that holds out hope for a renewal of peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Israel is hopeful that Abu Mazen can consolidate his power, reform the Palestinian Authority, and put an end to two years of senseless violence that has claimed too many innocent lives. If he is successful, Abu Mazen will find a willing peace partner in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
It is still unclear whether Abu Mazen will have the necessary authority to carry out the steps required by both Israel and the Bush Administration to resume the peace process, namely, the reform of the Palestinian Authority and the cessation of violence. Secretary of State Powell has called Abu Mazen’s appointment a “positive” development, but also said the key is whether he has real authority.
The Palestinians themselves are growing impatient with Arafat’s corrupt regime, which has brought the people nothing but misery in the last two years. This was evident when the Palestinian Legislative Council created the new post and rejected Arafat’s attempt to retain the authority to approve the Prime Minister's cabinet, fire ministers not to his liking, and appoint two deputy premiers of his preference.
Publicly, Arafat has asserted that he will retain control of issues relating to peace and security. If true, this would mean that Abu Mazen does not have the authority necessary to lead, and that the issues that most directly affect relations with Israel remain in the hands of the man who has demonstrated no interest in either peace or security. The Prime Minister can play a constructive role in advancing the peace process only if he has the complete authority to negotiate with Israel and to take the necessary measures to end the violence.
No one should have any illusions about Abu Mazen. He is the number two person in the PLO and a founder of the Fatah terrorist organization. It is possible to find many irredentist statements by the new Prime Minister; nevertheless, he has also shown the courage to publicly criticize the intifada and suggest the need to negotiate. He also was one of the Palestinian architects of the Oslo accords and is generally viewed as someone with home Israel can negotiate.
Israel will present no obstacles to Abu Mazen’s leadership; however, Abu Mazen’s authority is threatened by other Palestinians. He does not have an independent power base, Arafat is not yet willing to cede all his power, and the terrorist groups, particularly Hamas, vehemently oppose his selection and are likely to work to undermine him.