Arafat bids to salvage peace process with moderate PM

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The Independent Online

Yasser Arafat sought to extract the Palestinian Authority from a crisis threatening to destroythe peace process last night by nominating Abu Ala, the parliamentary Speaker, as the next prime minister.

He announced the appointment to the Fatah central committee, while Israel was on a heightened security alert after an attack by F-16 jets on the Hamas founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, at a house in Gaza on Saturday. Sheikh Yassin was only slightly hurt.

About 3,000 students marched in Gaza City yesterday in support of Sheikh Yassin. Hamas vowed revenge for the attack and said that Israel had opened the "gates of hell".

But the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, warned that Hamas leaders were now "marked for death" and would not have a moment's rest.

Israel sealed off the West Bank and Gaza Strip to prevent Palestinians leaving the occupied territories and intensified protection for leading Israeli politicians.

Israeli helicopter missiles also attacked a Hamas ammunition dump east of the Khan Yunis refugee camp in southern Gaza late last night, according to witnesses. The move came after Hamas claimed responsibility for an explosion that wounded three Israeli soldiers in a jeep close to the fence enclosing Gaza.

Mr Arafat tried to ease the mounting political crisis by making known his choice to replace Abu Mazen, who resigned on Saturday after just over four months in the job. While the appointement was formally approved by the Palestine Liberation Organisation's executive yesterday, Abu Ala has yet to indicate whether he would accept the post. It was also not know whether the appointment of Abu Ala, formally known as Ahmed Qureia, would be accepted by the US and Israel. Israel has indicated in the past that it was not prepared to deal with Mr Arafat or anyone directly representing him. At the very least Washington and Tel Aviv are likely to wait before seeing the exact terms of his appointment. The crisis over the Prime Minister's demand for more security and other powers from Mr Arafat remains unresolved.

Earlier, officials close to Mr Arafat had indicated that Abu Mazen remained his "first choice" as Prime Minister and he had been invited to remain in charge as a caretaker for at least two weeks. Abu Mazen appeared to give conflicting signals about his own intentions, saying both that it was "premature" to discuss whether he might at some point return to the job and that his decision to resign was "final".

Most legislators believe that there is no chance of his returning unless his power struggle with Mr Arafat is resolved, and that an alternative figure is therefore becoming a possibility. The minister for security affairs, Mohammad Dahlan, another figure who finds favour with the US and Israel, said that he was not prepared to serve except under Abu Mazen.

Of the possible candidates remotely congenial to Mr Arafat, President of the Palestinian Authority, Abu Ala is thought the most likely to be acceptable to Israel because he has stood up to him in past conflicts and was an architect of the Oslo peace accords.

The US made clear it was not in favour of repeated calls by a group of Israeli cabinet ministers for Mr Arafat to be expelled, partly because it could make it politically impossible for any Palestinian leader to continue in office and because it would merely give Mr Arafat the chance to tour international capitals drumming up support rather than confining him to his besieged redoubt in Ramallah. Nevertheless the Israeli Foreign Minister, Sylvan Shalom, repeated the calls to expel Mr Arafat, telling Israel Radio: "As long as Arafat is in the region, he won't let any other leader develop."

PROFILE

Ahmed Qureia, Yasser Arafat's choice to become Palestinian Prime Minister, is a moderate leader and former peace negotiator whose nomination could lift fading peace hopes.

Mr Qureia, known informally as Abu Ala, has been Speaker of the Palestinian legislature since 1996 but is not popular among ordinary Palestinians. Earlier, he ran Samed, the industrial and investment fund which for years underpinned the PLO's finances.

He is from a wealthy family and co-founded the Fatah faction in the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He is a member of Fatah's central committee, which sets the Palestinian Authority's policy and nominates its Prime Minister.

He was the key negotiator in secret talks with Israelis in Oslo that led to 1993 interim peace deals which set the stage for the creation of the Palestinian Authority and the return of the exiled PLO leadership to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The US Middle East expert Dennis Ross described Abu Ala as "someone who deeply believes in peace with Israel, who is against violence".

Mohammed Assadi

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