One for the road map

February 19, 2003

For the past 29 months, reports of killings in Israel and the occupied territories have become a numbing litany--three dead over here, seven dead over there--without any perceptible progress toward a settlement. As of Sunday, the fighting had killed 2,109 Palestinians and 727 Israelis, and inflicted savage economic blows to both groups.

The big election victory last month by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon signaled that Israelis hold little hope for a negotiated end to Palestinian violence. Most of the world is preoccupied now not with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but with a possible war against Iraq.

Yet on Friday, Yasser Arafat announced he will appoint a prime minister to head the Palestinian government. That has been one of the key points in the "road map" toward negotiation pushed by the so-called international Quartet, composed of the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the U.S. Indeed, Israel and the Bush administration refuse to negotiate with Arafat.

The announcement coincides with talks in London this week between Israelis and Palestinians about reforming the Palestinian Authority--and the latter's request for $1.5 billion in international aid for the next 12 months.

Arafat's announcement was universally cheered by all sides as a possible breakthrough in negotiating an end to the fighting. The corruption in Arafat's government almost caught up to him last year when a no-confidence vote almost made it through the Palestine legislature. Arafat promptly promised elections and the appointment of a reform-minded Cabinet but, typically, didn't deliver on either point.

Indeed, "mendacity" could be Arafat's middle name. That is why the latest cheers were quickly followed by questions whether he would in fact appoint a prime minister, about the nominee's real authority and job description, and his--no women need apply--ability to begin cleaning up the Palestinian Authority.

With negotiations starting in London, and Palestinians seeking another package of international aid, this is a good time to hold Arafat to his promise to relinquish some power and begin paving the way for true succession.

The favorite candidate of the Quartet and Israel is the reform-minded Palestinian Finance Minister Salam Fayyad. Sharon met him over the weekend. But there were reports he had taken himself out of contention, making it likely that Abu Mazen, the number two figure in the Palestinian Authority, would get the job.

Arafat announced his decision Sunday standing amid the rubble of his Ramallah headquarters, nearly destroyed by the Israelis. Did Arafat get the symbolism--that his power is shattered and he should get out of the way? International donors, and the Palestinians themselves, ought to make sure he does. Finally.

Copyright © 2003, Chicago Tribune