RAMALLAH, West Bank -- Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat appointed his longtime deputy Mahmoud Abbas as prime minister Wednesday, a senior official said, marking the first time that Arafat has been forced to share power.
Arafat sent a letter to Abbas, the No. 2 in the PLO, asking him to form a new Cabinet, said Palestinian Cabinet minister Saeb Erekat. Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, has five weeks to complete the task.
Also Wednesday, gunmen from a Palestinian militant group killed an Israeli motorist near a Jewish settlement in the northern West Bank.
Arafat agreed to appoint a premier under intense international pressure but tried until the last minute to limit the powers of the new position. On Tuesday, the Palestinian parliament rebuffed Arafat's efforts to insert a clause that would have appeared to give him the final say over Cabinet appointments.
According to the legislation creating his post -- passed almost unanimously in votes a week apart -- Abbas has the authority to appoint the Cabinet and call it into session, and he is responsible for overseeing its functions.
"It's the beginning of a transition -- it is certainly a turning point and a qualitative shift in the political culture," said legislator Hanan Ashrawi. "Now we have power-sharing that is clearly spelled out."
Arafat remains the commander of Palestinian security forces and the broader "Palestinian leadership," a body that includes the Cabinet, PLO leaders and security commanders. Arafat also retains the final say in peace talks.
The top United Nations envoy to the Middle East, Terje Larsen, said he was optimistic Abbas' appointment would help jump start long-stalled peace talks.
"For the first time in two and a half years, I see a small window of opportunity to get back to the table and out of the abyss of terrorism, violence, economic misery and general human suffering," Larsen told the U.N. Security Council.
In Wednesday's shooting, a 50-year-old Israeli motorist from the Mevo Dotan settlement in the northern West Bank was shot in the head and died at the scene. The road where the attack occurred reportedly is known for drive-by attacks against settlers. Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a militia linked to Arafat's Fatah movement, claimed responsibility.
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