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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 11 March, 2003, 00:02 GMT
Analysis: Palestinians' new dawn?

By Barbara Plett
BBC Middle East correspondent

Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas
Abbas' powers will be limited
As Palestinian deputies arrived at Yasser Arafat's headquarters to approve the new position of prime minister, Palestinian policemen were training outside.

The policemen have been out of a job since Israeli soldiers took over their cities; maybe Palestinian reform is their ticket back to work.

That is what the deputies are hoping.

The crucial question is how much power the new prime minister - Mr Arafat's deputy, Mahmoud Abbas - will have.

"It's going to be a challenge for this prime minister to extract meaningful and real power when we have a president who is used to monopolising all powers in his hand," said legislator Ziad Abu Amr.

Loosening grip

Inside the meeting hall there was a buzz of business.

Mr Arafat controls security and foreign policy - including peace talks
Mr Arafat has right to appoint and dismiss premier
Prime minister will be in charge of internal affairs and forming a government

The Palestinian leader had finally made the move after months of international pressure.

Mr Arafat has been told that easing his grip on power is a key condition to restart peace talks.

He is also eager to safeguard his position: the Israelis are talking about regime change in the Palestinian territories after any war with Iraq; Mr Arafat wants international protection as a payback for reforms.

Task ahead

The vote of approval was nearly unanimous, then legislators worked out the details.

It seems Mr Arafat will keep control over peace negotiations and security, while Mr Abbas will run the daily affairs of government.

That is a big task given the Israeli military presence, and legislator Hanan Ashrawi is not expecting Israel to aid Mr Abbas' efforts.

"Israel has been playing the most damaging and destructive obstructionist game," she said.

"Not just internally in terms of Palestinian democracy, but also in terms of wreaking havoc and provoking more and more violence, so I don't have any high expectations of this extremist hardline Israeli government."

Israeli scepticism

While Palestinians talk reform in Ramallah, Israel wages war against the Islamic militant group Hamas in Gaza.

A senior leader was assassinated at the weekend.

With every death, Hamas vows to strike back, like it did in Haifa last week.

Sixteen Israelis were killed by a suicide bomber who said he was avenging the Gaza operations.

Israelis blamed Yasser Arafat; they are not interested in any reform that leaves the Palestinian leader in place.

"The question is not who is going to be the next prime minister," said Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, "but the root question is if he will get the authority and if he will implement those positive steps that he was talking about before he was nominated."

Back in Ramallah, police throw themselves into their exercises.

There is change in the air, but there is also doubt about how much difference reform can make in the garrison realities of the Palestinian territories.

The BBC's Barbara Plett
"Yasser Arafat finally made the move after months of international pressure"

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