Arafat agrees to appointment of a prime minister


RAMALLAH, West Bank - Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat announced yesterday that he would appoint a prime minister, in a step toward meeting a central demand of the Bush administration for a resumption of the peace process.

Arafat did not say who would fill this new post or what powers the prime minister would have. Palestinians and Israelis are jockeying to improve their diplomatic positions, in response to domestic political pressures and in anticipation of a revival of the peace process as a result of a possible American war against Iraq.

The antagonists here are looking ahead to the aftermath of an Iraq war and to what one top Israeli official called "a fork in the road" in American policy. Each side foresees the Bush administration either seeking to mend fences with European and Arab nations by pressuring Israel for concessions - or else continuing its tilt toward Israel by treating Arafat as an outcast.

Arafat's statement appeared timed to precede a meeting in London early next week by the diplomatic group that has drafted a road map to achieve peace and a Palestinian state in 2005. The group is composed of the United States, United Nations, European Union and Russia.

Arafat also told diplomats from the group for the first time yesterday that he fully accepted the draft road map, backing off previous objections. Ariel Sharon, Israel's prime minister, has said he accepts the road map, but he is seeking to change it substantively.

Arafat made his statement in a meeting in the remnant of his official compound here with representatives of the United Nations, European Union, and Russia. They have had repeated sessions with the Palestinian leader in recent days to press for a prime minister.

While demanding that Arafat yield his executive powers to a prime minister, the Bush administration has downgraded its diplomatic communications with him, declining to send senior representatives.

Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special envoy, said Arafat had made "two important steps" in endorsing the road map and the appointment of a prime minister.

"What we now hope and expect is that he will appoint a credible prime minister and an empowered prime minister, and these steps will have to follow," he said.

The extent of the prime minister's powers, and his identity, are likely to be the next contentious issues.

Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said after meeting with Arafat yesterday: "It's no secret that Arafat will appoint the prime minister, and the prime minister will be accountable to Arafat. Those who say this will weaken Arafat - that is not the case."

Asked to describe the duties of the prime minister, Erekat said he would "run the Cabinet."

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