It’s not just about Arafat

Contrary to popular belief, the appointment of Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) to the position of Palestinian prime minister is not a rubber stamp process. The Palestinian executive and legislature are currently working together to make this happen as quickly as possible, but we do have rules and procedures that must be abided by as we restructure our government.

Today, March 17, the elected Palestinian Legislative Council met for the third and final reading of the amendments to the Basic Law or constitution that will create the position of prime minister. Once those amendments are approved (no challenges are expected) and they are published in the official gazette, the Palestinian prime ministerial seat will exist in law.

To arrive at this point, Palestinian President Yasser Arafat first requested the approval of the Central Council of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which is Palestinian people’s highest political authority and includes members from the Palestinian Diaspora–the millions of Palestinian refugees who continue to live outside their homeland. The Central Council is the same body that approved Israeli-Palestinian agreements that created the Palestinian Authority, of which Yasser Arafat is president today.

After the Central Council voted to accept this new position and appoint Abu Mazen, who is PLO Executive Committee General Secretary (and second only to Arafat himself), the Council delegated the Palestinian Legislative Council (the parliament of the Palestinian Authority) with drafting the necessary laws. The Legal Committee then hunkered down to draft those amendments, which have now been read and vetted twice by both the Legislative Council and the Palestinian justice ministry.

Once the law is finalized, then the president will invite Abu Mazen to form a government, which will require another meeting of the Legislative Council to vote in the new ministers.

These complex but important procedures have progressed quickly and relatively smoothly. Contrary to many press reports, the two main actors–Arafat and Abu Mazen–have had no significant differences of opinion. In addition, the process has gained momentum because the appointment of Abu Mazen as prime minister is seen by most officials as a positive step towards addressing internal Palestinian needs. Abu Mazen will have time to manage the cabinet and follow up on the performance of the various ministries and ministers, which can only improve our government performance and public support.

Politically, however, the appointment of Abu Mazen is not likely to make a great deal of difference. First, there are no significant political differences between Arafat and “prime minister” Abu Mazen. While there might be contrasts in style and approach, in the fundamental issues up for political negotiations, there is no significant break between the two men. Indeed, they agree that President Arafat’s negotiating positions are as flexible as the Palestinian public will allow.

Second, there are no political negotiations to speak of. As long as this right wing government is running Israel, it is difficult to imagine any real chance of a peace process rebirth. The government led by Ariel Sharon is ideologically incompatible with the heart of peace: ending the occupation. Instead, this Israeli administration is working overtime to consolidate its occupation of Palestinians, behaving brutally in the process and inspiring a violent Palestinian response. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to conceive of an end to the violence, regardless of who is in charge in Palestine.

This also helps explain why, as interested as Israel and the outside world may be in the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister, the Palestinian public remains largely indifferent. With the exception of the very top tier, the Palestinian people have little to say on the matter, unless they are speaking to foreign journalists. This is simply because Palestinians feel that they have much more pressing things to worry about: finding jobs, avoiding death, and ensuring education for their children. The Palestinian people bear the deep conviction that the cause of their suffering and the suffering of Israelis is the Israeli occupation, which seems nowhere near its final hour.

Mr. Ghassan Khatib is a Palestinian political analyst and director of the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

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