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Analysis: Movement in the Middle East to Establish a Palestinian Prime Minister

Morning Edition: July 18, 2002

Middle East Diplomacy

BOB EDWARDS, host:

The United States and its partners are deciding how to advance the Middle East peace process. One of the most divisive issues is how large a role Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat should play. Washington says he has to go, but Arab and European leaders point out Arafat is the elected leader of the Palestinian people. One way around that impasse would be the creation of a Palestinian prime minister. Arafat could get a ceremonial position leaving day to day operations to a prime minister. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly reports.

MARY LOUISE KELLY reporting:

The idea of a Palestinian prime minister isn't new, but it may be an idea whose time has come. Yesterday, Palestinian Cabinet Minister Nabil Shaath said Arafat believes an independent state needs a prime minister. Shibley Telhami of the University of Maryland says it's unlikely Arafat would willingly don the mantel of a statesman emeritus, but Telhami says Arafat may be convinced it's his last chance.

Mr. SHIBLEY TELHAMI (University of Maryland): This is an idea that would enable him to remain as president and enable him to negotiate in an environment where his options are frankly very limited. He has no military option. He has no political option. The real question is whether now his options are so limited and the demands from within the Palestinian community are so high that he may actually see this as a way out.

KELLY: Secretary of State Colin Powell also apparently sees merit in the idea. Earlier this week, he said he's more than willing to consider it. Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, now director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, says a prime minister would allow the Bush administration to move forward with engaging the Palestinians at a senior level.

Mr. MARTIN INDYK (Brookings Institution): It could also get around the problem of a presidential election in which Yasser Arafat is elected. That would create some embarrassment for the president having said that he's only going to deal with democratically elected leaders. In this way, there'd be no need for a presidential election. Yasser Arafat could become president for life as long as he didn't have the powers to inflict his arbitrary rule on the Palestinian people.

KELLY: Which is not to say it's a panacea for Palestinian problems. Palestinian Minister Shaath offered no clues as to who might get the job of a prime minister, but both Palestinian and US analysts say it would almost certainly be someone who sees eye to eye with Arafat. If that's the case, then a prime minister could end up having very little practical effect, at least in the short term. Robert Malley was special assistant to the White House for Arab-Israeli affairs during the Clinton administration. He says the idea has value as a diplomatic compromise, but it could end up being a diversion that costs time, and therefore, costs lives.

Mr. ROBERT MALLEY: And if we go down that path and he appoints somebody and then the administration is not satisfied with the appointment or not satisfied with the powers that that person has, then what? Do we then wait another six months for a new change of leadership with all the consequences that would entail or do we move forward and try to get beyond the nature of the identity, the flaws of the current leadership on both sides, on the Palestinian and on the Israeli side.

KELLY: It's not clear yet how seriously Washington is taking the idea. President Bush so far isn't saying what he thinks about a prime minister for the Palestinians. When asked about it at the White House yesterday, he repeated that the Palestinians would be better served by new leadership.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: This is an issue much bigger than a single person. Mr. Arafat would like the whole issue to be about him. That's the way it's been in the past. Except when you analyze his record, he has failed the Palestinian people. He just has, and that's reality.

KELLY: Yasser Arafat would dispute that assessment. He cannot dispute that momentum is building for some sort of change in the Palestinian leadership. Mary Louise Kelly, NPR News, Washington.

EDWARDS: The time is 19 minutes past the hour.

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