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Palestinians OK prime minister post

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian parliament approved the new position of prime minister on Monday as part of reforms sought by the United States, Europe and Israel to curb Yasser Arafat's near absolute powers.

However, it appears Arafat will retain control of two key issues — security and peace talks with Israel — while the new prime minister will deal largely with internal affairs, including naming and supervising Cabinet ministers.

The power-sharing agreement, worked out last week by the Palestinian leader and his appointee for prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, falls short of demands that a new prime minister effectively replace Arafat as the chief peace negotiator.

President Bush has said the Palestinians have to choose new leaders as a precondition for statehood.

U.S. and Israeli officials hinted at regret Monday that Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, apparently will have little say in peace talks. Abbas is a moderate and the most outspoken critic of shooting and bombing attacks on Israelis.

"Our view is the prime minister should be empowered . . . to move forward toward peace and away from violence and terrorism, and that's what we hope the Palestinian legislative council does," said the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Dan Kurtzer.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said Abbas should be given a chance to stop terror and incitement against Israel. "The real question is if he will get the authority," Shalom said.

Arafat reluctantly agreed last month to name a prime minister after balking at the idea — popular among Palestinians as well — for months. His critics remain skeptical about Arafat's intentions, saying that while the appointment of a prime minister could be presented as genuine reform, they expect the Palestinian leader to resist relinquishing control.

"It would be a radical change for someone other than Arafat to be exercising broad powers," legislator Ziad Abu Amr said Monday. "It don't think it will be easy for this prime minister to extract power from President Arafat."

In other developments Monday, Israeli troops withdrew from a four-square-mile area of northern Gaza they had seized last week in an attempt to stop the firing of homemade rockets at Israeli border towns. At the time, army commanders said the reoccupation was open-ended. The pullback came despite the firing of four Qassam rockets on the Israeli town of Sderot on Monday.

Arafat opened Monday's parliament session with an hour-long, often rambling speech. He revisited familiar themes, including accusations that Israel's military strikes against Palestinian militants amount to "state terrorism," and that Israel is sabotaging peace efforts. He also said he opposes attacks on civilians.

Afterward, legislators approved creating the prime minister position by 64-3, with four abstentions. Parliament later was to begin debating the authorities of the new job and pass necessary legislation.

According to the draft, the prime minister "supervises the work of the ministers" and chairs weekly Cabinet sessions. The prime minister has five weeks from the day of being elected to form a Cabinet.

Easy approval of the new position had been expected; a majority of the 88 members of parliament are from Arafat's Fatah movement, which has pushed for reform and urged Arafat to share power.

Fatah leaders also had demanded that Abbas, a senior official in the movement, be chosen for the job.

Seventy-four of the lawmakers participated in the session at Arafat's compound in the West Bank town of Ramallah. Ten took part via video conference from Gaza City, having been barred by Israel from traveling to the West Bank. Israel claims those 10 have been involved in violent activities.

Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. envoy to the Mideast, said the international community had hoped the prime minister would have a key role in negotiations. There was an expectation that "Abu Mazen would be fully empowered to go back to the table and start negotiation with a 100 percent authorization from the legitimate Palestinian organ," Roed-Larsen told Israel Army Radio.

Israel and the United States insist that Arafat hand over authority to a powerful prime minister, retaining only a ceremonial role for himself. The two countries have banned their officials from meeting with Arafat, charging he has not taken steps to stop Palestinian violence.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has ruled out peace talks with the Palestinians until 29 months of violence are halted, but he has had meetings with Abbas.

Many Israeli leaders have met Abbas and favor his appointment, noting that he is an outspoken critic of attacks on Israelis.