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Arafat considering appointing prime minister

From Kelly Wallace, Jerrold Kessel and Avivit Dalgoshen

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JERUSALEM (CNN) -- Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is considering appointing a prime minister to run Palestinian affairs, a top Arafat adviser told CNN Thursday.

"It is under consideration but a final decision has not been taken yet," said Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator.

Arafat has long resisted appointing a prime minister, concerned it could weaken him politically. But the Palestinian leader is facing mounting international pressure from United Nations, Russian and European Union diplomats to make a move before any U.S.-led attack on Iraq.

Arafat will be meeting with envoys from the United Nations, Russia and the European Union Friday morning at his Ramallah compound, where the matter is expected to be discussed, diplomats said.

Asked if Arafat was expected to make a final decision about appointing a prime minister at the Friday meeting, Erakat said he could not say.

Arafat is facing pressure not just to appoint a prime minister, but to name a four-person council that would pursue reforms and establish a negotiating posture with the Israelis, diplomats said.

Next week, members of the so-called quartet on the Middle East, the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia, are expected to meet in London.

In a letter to British Prime Minister Tony Blair in January, just days before Blair's meeting in Washington with President Bush, Arafat accepted the quartet's "road map" in principle, Erakat said. The Palestinian adviser would not reveal any more about that letter.

The road map calls for Arafat to make a series of reforms, including naming a prime minister.

Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said the objective of the new coalition government he is in the process of forming would be to remove the Palestinian "terrorist leadership." He stopped short of saying he would expel Arafat.

"The new government would have to complete the campaign against terror, remove the terrorist leadership and create conditions for the emergence of a new Palestinian leadership with which it will be possible to make real peace," Sharon said, after being formally asked by Israel's President Moshe Katsav to form a new government. Sharon's Likud won the most support in the January 28 election.

U.S. officials are not actively pushing the road map, accepting Israel's view that it should be on hold until Sharon forms his new government. Many diplomats believe the United States is also holding off until after any military campaign in Iraq.

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