Abbas takes up PM's post

21 March 2003
The Palestinian Legislative Council (parliament) approved on 19 March a bill defining the powers of the newly-created post of prime minister. Yasser Arafat's nomination for the post, his second-in-command Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), accepted the job the following day. The appointment fulfils a key condition laid down by the US and Israel for progress towards peace. US Secretary of State Colin Powell signalled the White House's approval by pledging to invite Abbas to Washington for talks.

Behind the demand for the appointment of a prime minister 'with real authority' is the desire to reduce the power of Arafat, whom the US and Israel claim is compromised by links to terrorism. Abbas stated that he would turn down the position if not granted sufficient power, and the council rejected a last-minute attempt by Arafat to dilute the premier's authority: an amendment that would have required Abbas to present his cabinet to Arafat for endorsement was voted down. The division of responsibilities will leave Arafat in charge of security and with the final say on peace negotiations, while Abbas will appoint the cabinet and take charge of internal affairs. The new prime minister is regarded as a moderate and has been strong in condemning recent Palestinian attacks on Israelis.

Abbas' formal appointment came against the background of continuing violence in the Occupied Territories. Israeli army raids on the Nusseirat refugee camp and the town of Beit Lahiya on 17 March left 10 Palestinians dead. An American peace protester was also killed on 16 March by an army bulldozer in the Rafah refugee camp, as she attempted to prevent the destruction of a Palestinian building.

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