ABU DIS, West Bank – A quick push to reach a truce with Israel, but no crackdown on militants despite U.S. pressure — that's how Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia (search) summed up his agenda in an interview with The Associated Press on Monday, a day after taking office.
Qureia's basic approach differs little from that of his predecessor, Mahmoud Abbas (search), who also wanted to end the Israeli-Palestinian violence but resigned in frustration last month, after just four months in office.
Like Abbas, Qureia appears to have no formula for breaking the deadlock with Israel that has frozen the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan: Israel refuses to move forward until the Palestinians dismantle armed groups that have killed hundreds of Israelis in the past three years.
The United States has largely backed Israel, but appears ready to work with Qureia, a pragmatic and skilled politician, despite concerns about his close ties to Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.
The Palestinian prime minister is staking his hopes on negotiating a truce with Israel and somehow bringing Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other militant organizations on board.
"We are ready, beginning from tomorrow, to sit with them (the Israelis) to discuss reaching a comprehensive cease-fire," Qureia said in the interview in a modest, booklined office in the Jerusalem suburb of Abu Dis in the West Bank — his first with a Western news organization since taking office. The move to the prime minister's building in the West Bank town of Ramallah is not expected for another few days.
In the latest violence, an Islamic Jihad homicide bomber killed 19 Israelis on Saturday in the port city of Haifa. Hamas, meanwhile, has threatened more attacks as reprisal for Israel's airstrike Sunday on a suspected Islamic Jihad training base in Syria, meant as retribution for the Haifa bombing.
Israel says publicly that it will not begin truce talks until the Palestinian security forces take some action against armed groups. In private, Israeli security officials are debating whether they should settle for lesser measures, such as closing down the tunnels of weapons smugglers, or insist key militants be arrested as a prerequisite for truce talks.
Israel itself is in violation of the road map, which calls for concurrent implementation of all obligations, including a freeze on Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.
Qureia said Monday he would not buckle under American or Israeli dictates. "We accepted the road map. We will implement it," he said. "But I will not receive instructions, 'be tough' or 'be flexible.' This is my work. It's my business."
The 66-year-old premier hopes to impose order in the Palestinian areas and end what he has called the "chaos of weapons," but said he has not yet worked out a security plan.
However, he is adamant there will be no clampdown on militants. "We will not confront, we will not go for a civil war," he said. "It's not in our interest. It's not in the interest of our people, and it's not in the interest of the peace process."
President Bush, asked at a White House news conference Monday if he could work with a Palestinian prime minister who would not use force against militants, said the Palestinian Authority must do more to fight terror and "must use whatever means is necessary. ... All parties must assume responsibility."
Qureia said he is working to unify the eight security forces under one command, as demanded by the United States. In the past, four of the branches were under Arafat's control and four under Abbas'. Wrangling over the security forces helped push Abbas to resign.
Under a new arrangement, a 13-member National Security Council headed by Arafat will set policy, to be carried out by the new interior minister, Nasser Yousef, who will direct all eight branches. Qureia, Yousef and other Cabinet ministers will also serve on the Security Council.
"I think it's a significant step toward uniting the Palestinian security forces," Qureia said, though it remains unclear how much of a role Arafat will have in setting policy.
Israel and the United States have accused Arafat of blocking any action against armed groups. They have sought to sideline the veteran Palestinian leader as an obstacle to peace, accusing him of encouraging terrorism.
Qureia became close to Arafat in the 1970s as the PLO's banker and continues to have a solid relationship with him. While Arafat and Abbas sometimes had arguments, Qureia has said he would not openly confront Arafat and has been careful to defer to him in public. It remains unclear to what degree Qureia would, or could, pursue an independent policy.
Qureia, chosen for the prime minister's job last month, was appointed by a decree from Arafat on Sunday night after weeks of maneuvering over Cabinet appointments.
In naming a government quickly, rather than waiting for a larger Cabinet to be approved by Parliament on Wednesday, as initially planned, Arafat apparently hoped to block any Israeli action against him. Following Saturday's homicide bombing, Arafat was increasingly concerned that Israel might make good on threats to "remove" him, most likely by expelling him.
However, Israel appears hesitant. The United States opposes expulsion and would likely want Israel to give Qureia a chance. Were Arafat to be expelled, Qureia would have little choice but to resign in a show of solidarity.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Qureia have met repeatedly in the past, and Sharon suggested recently that he can do business with Qureia, whom he described as a cunning politician.
Asked about holding talks with Sharon, Qureia said Monday: "I will meet with him if this is essential and beneficial," adding that a summit should be well prepared to ensure results.
Qureia said he hopes to resume negotiations quickly, but will settle for nothing less than a Palestinian state in all of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with east Jerusalem as its capital; the road map envisions Palestinian independence by 2005, but has not delineated borders.
"As a Palestinian, this is what I am trying to do. I am not listening to Sharon, what he wants," he said. Sharon has proposed creating a Palestinian state on much less land, and only after many years.
Qureia, who logged hundreds of hours negotiating interim peace accords with Israel in the past decade, is seen by many Israelis as a pragmatic leader. He has maintained friendships with leaders of Israel's peace camp, including elder statesman Shimon Peres.
Qureia has condemned homicide bombings since being designated prime minister, and on Saturday called the mayor of Haifa to express his condolences.
He said both sides were responsible for the escalation in violence in the past three years, but that the Israelis shouldered greater blame because of their tough policies.
He stopped short of saying that violence in the struggle for independence was a mistake; a majority of Palestinians continue to support bombing and shooting attacks, if only to satisfy a feeling of revenge for the hardships caused by Israeli travel bans and military strikes.
"We are a people under occupation," Qureia said. "I cannot criticize the people's choice."