Published April 29, 2003
| Associated Press
RAMALLAH, West Bank – The Palestinian parliament approved Mahmoud Abbas (search) as prime minister Tuesday, clearing the final obstacle to the launch of a U.S.-backed plan that holds the first real hope of ending 2 years of Israeli-Palestinian fighting and renewing peace talks.
The plan, sponsored by the "quartet" of Mideast mediators, could be unveiled by Thursday, a diplomat said.
In his first speech to parliament, Abbas stuck to traditional Palestinian positions toward Israel. But he also pledged to disarm militias, a promise that could set up a violent showdown between the Palestinian Authority and militant groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
"I think that I can meet all my obligations in the government, for the sake of our people," a smiling Abbas said after the vote.
But the task facing the 68-year-old premier, who despite a long career has little experience in the power politics of day-to-day government, appears overwhelming.
He'll have to keep at bay Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search), who remains popular, retains some powers -- including control of some security organizations -- and has already tried to sabotage him by objecting to his Cabinet selections.
And in a sign of the troubles ahead, the Islamic militant Hamas warned it has no intention of disarming or ending attacks on Israelis.
The United States and Israel are eager to do business with Abbas, an outspoken opponent of violence among the Palestinian leadership. But the international support has hurt Abbas at home, with many Palestinians considering him a U.S. puppet.
Underscoring the difficulties was the violence that continued to rage, with Israeli troops killing three militants and a bystander even as the lawmakers gathered in Ramallah to confirm Abbas' Cabinet.
The confirmation -- by 51-18, with three abstentions -- clears the way for the unveiling of the so-called road map to Palestinian statehood. U.S. officials have said the plan would be formally unveiled once Abbas was installed.
The first stage calls for a cease-fire, a crackdown on Palestinian militias, an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian towns and the dismantling of Jewish settlements erected since 2001. A Palestinian state with provisional borders could be established by year's end and full statehood within three years, according to the timetable.
A quartet diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the plan could be published Wednesday or Thursday, after consultations among the mediators -- the United States, European Union, United Nations and Russia.
In his speech, Abbas affirmed his acceptance of the road map, but rejected changes by Israel, saying: "The road map must be implemented, not negotiated."
Israel says Palestinians must stop all violence before it makes any peace moves.
Among the abstainers was the activist Hanan Ashrawi, who complained that Abbas had chosen ministers based on personal loyalty.
Abbas, who favors suit-and-tie attire in contrast to Arafat's penchant for military-style dress, delivered his agenda as he sat next to the Palestinian leader on a dais, facing a packed reception hall in Arafat's West Bank headquarters.
Legislators traditionally hold part of their session in Arafat's office because he is afraid of leaving the compound, fearing he will be targeted by Israel. For the vote, the parliament moved to its own building in downtown Ramallah.
Abbas staked out familiar positions on peace talks. He said the Palestinians "will not accept anything less" than a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza Strip, a Palestinian capital in east Jerusalem, and a dismantling of all Jewish settlements.
He appeared to be taking a softer stance on the fate of 4 million Palestinian refugees and their descendants, saying there should be a "fair and acceptable" solution but not insisting explicitly on their "right of return" to Israel.
In perhaps the strongest denunciation of terrorism by a senior Palestinian official, Abbas said: "We are convinced that such methods do not lend support to a just cause like ours, but rather destroy it." Arafat has condemned attacks on Israelis, but in ambiguous fashion, and Israel has accused him of encouraging, and even financing, attacks.
Abbas promised to weed out corruption, including among the security forces, and hinted at a crackdown on militias. "The unauthorized possession of weapons ... is a major concern that will be relentlessly addressed," he said, adding that there would be "one authority, one law."
A Hamas leader, Abdel Aziz Rantisi, said the group would "never drop its weapons and will not allow anyone to disarm it."
Addressing the Israelis, Abbas took a rarely heard conciliatory tone: "We do not ignore the suffering of the Jews throughout history." His aides said he added the sentence to the speech -- delivered on Israel's Holocaust Remembrance Day -- because he felt stung by accusations that in his doctoral thesis in the 1970s, he diminished the scope of the Nazi genocide.
Israel said it would judge Abbas by his actions. "Any Palestinian government and any prime minister will be judged by two criteria -- the extent to which he will execute the most urgent, necessary reforms in government and the extent to which he's going to perform the necessary steps to stop terrorism," said Raanan Gissin, an adviser to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Gissin said Sharon was ready, in principle, to invite Abbas for talks in Jerusalem. The two have met repeatedly in the past.
During a four-hour debate that preceded the vote, Abbas was grilled about a possible crackdown on militias. Abbas held his own in the often stormy discussion, commanding silence when some legislators tried to interrupt.
Several legislators said they were skeptical about Abbas' reform promises and complained that he missed a chance for a sweeping Cabinet overhaul.
His critics noted his appointees included several marred by corruption charges, particularly Mohammed Dahlan, who was chosen to lead the campaign against the militants.
In Tuesday's violence, an Israeli helicopter gunship fired four missiles at a car in the Gaza Strip, killing Nidal Salama, a senior member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a small radical PLO faction, and a bystander. Troops in the West Bank fatally shot two members of the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement.