Speaker tapped as new Palestinian prime minister

Monday, September 8, 2003

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Yasser Arafat tapped the Palestinian parliament speaker to take over as prime minister Sunday and lead the Palestinians' next government after the resignation of Mahmoud Abbas.

Several leaders of Arafat's ruling Fatah party confirmed the nomination by consensus of parliament speaker Ahmed Qureia, though it remained unclear if he would accept. Qureia attended the meeting Sunday night but did not comment, Fatah officials said. The parliament speaker "is our only nominee," said Abbas Zaki, a member of the Fatah central committee.

The developments came during a day of intensive backroom politics set off by Saturday's resignation of Abbas. Arafat had refused to grant him more power over the Palestinian security services, capping four months of wrangling between the two since Abbas took office.

Qureia -- a moderate who helped cobble together the 1993 Oslo accord between Israel and the PLO -- was considered a top candidate to replace Abbas because he has led past negotiations and has credibility with the Israelis. Israeli officials didn't immediately respond to the development.

The Palestinian's leadership crisis came as Israel edged toward all-out war with the militant group Hamas.

'Marked for death'

One day after a botched strike Saturday against the group's top leaders, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said that all of the Islamic militant group's members are now "marked for death."

At the same time, a debate brewed over the morality of such "targeted killings" and over whether the militants can be deterred.

The decision to ratchet up the war on Hamas has considerable public support.

A power vacuum on the Palestinian side might invite an escalation in violence, with Palestinian militants possibly stepping up attacks and Israel taking more dramatic measures, including the potential expulsion of Arafat from Palestinian areas.

Momentum appeared to grow in Israel for expelling Arafat, with Cabinet ministers arguing that Abbas' resignation proved the 74-year-old Palestinian leader is the main impediment to peace efforts.

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