JERUSALEM – Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas (search), following a heart procedure earlier this week in Jordan, said Friday he plans to appoint a deputy, signaling that he is preparing to groom a successor.
Abbas, 70, did not say whom he had in mind for the job and told reporters that he needs to discuss the matter with the Palestinian parliament and Cabinet.
Information Minister Nabil Shaath said Abbas wants someone to share responsibilities with and to stand in for him when he is abroad.
Age also was a concern, Shaath said. "He is now 70, and as he himself has said, souls are in the hands of God," Shaath told The Associated Press, adding that Abbas feels in good health, despite the angiogram he underwent in Jordan on Wednesday. In the past, Abbas also was treated for prostate cancer.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (search) called Abbas on Friday and wished him good health, Sharon's office said. The two leaders are to meet June 21 to discuss implementation of a truce package, including the handover of more West Bank towns to Palestinian control.
The role of deputy president of the Palestinian Authority (search) would still need to be defined by Abbas and by parliament.
Abbas has the right to name a deputy, but under existing law, that person would not become president if Abbas dies. Instead, the parliament speaker would be president for a transition period of 60 days, as was done after the death of long-time leader Yasser Arafat (search) in November.
However, Abbas could ask parliament to change the basic law to allow for a possible successor and hinted Friday that he would do so, saying he would present the proposal to the Palestinian legislature. "They will take the necessary decision," Abbas said.
Some speculated that Abbas simply wants to create a symbolic post to award to his biggest political rival, Farouk Kaddoumi, the nominal leader of the ruling Fatah party, who has chosen to remain in exile. Tensions between Abbas and Kaddoumi have been flaring in recent months because of power struggles, and Abbas could defuse Kaddoumi's anger by making him deputy, Palestinian legislator Azmi Shuabi said.
Another contender for the deputy's job could be Marwan Barghouti (search), a popular Palestinian uprising leader jailed by Israel. That would help Abbas boost his own standing ahead of parliament elections, to be held in coming months, in which the opposition militant group Hamas is mounting a serious challenge to Fatah.
Relations between Abbas and his prime minister, Ahmed Qureia (search), have been rocky at times, but have improved recently. It was not clear whether Qureia would be considered for the job.
In planning to name a deputy, Abbas is breaking with his predecessor, Arafat, who ruled the Palestinians for decades and refused to groom a successor for fear someone would try to replace him in his lifetime. Despite forecasts of possible chaos, the transition from Arafat to Abbas was orderly and sealed by elections in January.
In other developments Friday, security officials said Israel wants to hand additional West Bank towns to Palestinian security control before a planned withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in August, signaling that stop-and-go peace efforts could move forward after weeks of deadlock.
The handover has been delayed because of disagreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority over how to disarm militants in areas coming under Palestinian control. Israel has been pushing for the use of force, while the Palestinians chose to co-opt the armed men by bringing them into their security services.
The handover of West Bank towns was expected to top the agenda when Abbas and Sharon meet later this month.
At their last summit, in February, the two leaders agreed on a truce package, including the Israeli handover of five West Bank towns — Jericho, Tulkarem, Bethlehem, Qalqiliya and Ramallah — to Palestinian control. The fate of Nablus, Jenin and Hebron was left undecided.
Since then, Israel has handed over only Jericho and Tulkarem, while the transfer of Qalqiliya, Ramallah and Bethlehem was held up by disagreement over disarming Palestinian militants.
Despite Israel's complaints about the performance of the Palestinian security service, Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz wants to transfer at least three more towns to Palestinian control before the start of the Gaza pullout, security officials said, confirming a report in the Haaretz daily.
Israel may even go beyond its obligations in the truce package and hand over the militant strongholds of Jenin and Nablus, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of their position.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said he has not received any Israeli promises that handover of towns would resume but he expected the issue to top the Sharon-Abbas agenda at the meeting. "It is in both our interests that we continue the handover process," Erekat said.