Jerusalem (dpa) - Mahmoud Abbas Wednesday became the first prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, accepting the newly-created post after the Palestinian parliament's near unanimous vote Tuesday.
That vote was in favour of a bill creating the post in an historic move that ended President Yassir Arafat's status as the unchallenged Palestinian leader.
Arafat later signed the bill, which cleared the way for appointing his longtime 67-year-old deputy Abbas (Abu Mazen), who now has a maximum five weeks to form a government.
The bill - which passed with 69 votes in favour, one abstention and none against - stripped Arafat of the core of his decision-making powers, as it transferred executive authority to the prime minister.
The legislators accepted the bill in its final reading after Arafat was forced to withdraw an amendment that would have increased his influence over the office.
In a meeting with his Fatah faction the previous night, Arafat was told the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) would not pass the bill with his amendment which obliged the prime minister to consult with the president before appointing his cabinet.
As a compromise, a memo would be attached to the bill, saying the prime minister, prior to presenting his cabinet to the PLC, would consult with the president out of respect for him. The requirement would thus not be entrenched in law, but rather be a non-binding understanding.
The rejected amendment made by Arafat sparked heated discussions in the PLC Monday, which had to go into a recess until Tuesday, before it was finally being able to pass the bill in its final version.
The creation of an empowered Palestinian prime minister is a key demand in a peace plan by the Quartet for the Middle East, made up of the United States, European Union, Russia and United Nation.
The plan, known as the roadmap, calls for reforms in the Palestinian political, economic and security institutions before a return to the shattered Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is possible.
In Washington, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the new post a ''positive step'' but said the United States was disappointed security powers remained under Arafat. The United States had demanded new leadership as part of the reforms needed to get the peace process on track.
''There is a disappointment that [security] seems to remain wholly in the hands of Chairman Arafat,'' he said.
E.U. envoy Miguel Angel Moratinos also welcomed Abbas' nomination, calling it ''a great achievement'' and adding, ''I came here to say congratulations to President Yassir Arafat for the democratic way that was made to nominate a PM.''
Arafat, who has ruled the Palestinian autonomous areas as a virtual autocrat since their creation following the 1993 Oslo interim peace agreement, is now left with three main powers.
He can appoint and fire the prime minister. He can sign or decline to sign laws. And he remains the chief commander of the Palestinian national forces with ultimate authority over state security. In addition, as the president he appoints diplomats and gives amnesty to prisoners.
An Israeli reserve soldier and two militants of the Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement, meanwhile, were killed in two West Bank shoot-outs Tuesday.
Soldiers shot dead Nasser Asida in a village on the northern West Bank, east of Nablus. Asida was a local Hamas leader in the Askar refugee camp, near Nablus, Palestinians said.
Israeli security sources said he had trained the gunmen who had carried out attacks on Jewish settlements near Nablus, in which a total of 23 Israelis were killed.
An Israeli armoured force had earlier entered a village on the southern West Bank near Bethlehem overnight. A gunbattle ensued with Hamas militants, in which one militant and a soldier were killed. Another soldier was lightly injured.
Security sources named the dead militant as Ali Allan. They said he was responsible for a number of major suicide bombings in Haifa and Jerusalem as well as for shooting attacks on the West Bank in which a total of 31 Israelis were killed.
Palestinians confirmed Allan was a leading Hamas activist in the Bethlehem area.
The Israeli force demolished the home in which Allan had been holed up. They demolished three more houses in the village belonging to the families of another Hamas activist, the activist's father and his brother, residents said.
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Received by NewsEdge Insight: 03/19/2003 15:02:07
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